What is Día de los Muertos?

by Alamo Staff Member Misty Hurley

What is Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead? If we judge the celebration by pop culture and what is available in stores, it is a celebration like Carnival or Mardi Gras, with colorfully decorated skeletons. These images can be found on a variety of products — candles, bags, shirts, pillows, trivets, wine bottles, and more, and not only in specialty shops but at the local grocery store as well.

Much of the holiday’s new-found popularity can be attributed to Disney’s 2017 film, Coco, a heartwarming story about a young boy who travels to the land of the dead and learns the importance of family. This movie touches on many aspects of the holiday including the traditions and symbolism, but being a lighthearted children’s movie, it can only do so much.

An example of the colorful skeleton decorations for Día de los Muertos

So where does this celebration of Día de los Muertos come from? What does it involve? How did it get here?

When observers of the celebration are asked how Día de los Muertos came about or where it came from, they often reply that they do not know, it is just something that they’ve always done. Historians, Anthropologists, and others who have studied the celebration also cannot decide or agree on the holiday’s origins. Some feel that a version of the holiday was already celebrated among Catholics along the Mediterranean prior to the Spanish arrival in the new world, others believe that the holiday was strongly influenced by the indigenous people of the area that we now call Mexico, and then there is a third group which questions whether it could, perhaps, be a combination of the two. There are a few things that we can say with certainty: the Catholic Church observed All Saints and All Souls day and introduced these celebrations to the indigenous people of Mexico and; the indigenous people already had traditions of honoring the dead with celebrations, offerings, and feasts.

It seems that we have our answer. Or do we?

The celebration of Día de los Muertos continued(s) to be influenced and evolve thanks to current events, art, newspapers, geography, religion, pop culture, society, the economy, the list goes on and on. There are so many elements that have or could influence the celebration that there is very little uniformity of the holiday across Mexico or the Southern United States, much less from region to region, or even town to town.

There is one theme that unites every celebration and that is honoring those who have passed before us. How a person, family, or town chooses to honor their dead and on which days, again, varies greatly. Some go to the cemetery and spend time cleaning the graves, some take that up a notch and decorate the graves or bring offerings, or a family may create an ofrenda or altar in their house instead of or in addition to visiting the cemetery.

The ofrenda may be the second-most recognized element of Día de los Muertos behind the skeletons. Ofrendas, like the celebrations themselves, also vary enormously depending on the region, how their church teaches All Saints/Souls Days, and their income. Regardless of those influences, one of the things repeated over and over by interviewees is that the most important thing about an ofrenda is to offer the best that you can and do so with love in your heart for your deceased loved ones.

So how did this celebration come to San Antonio? To put it simply, people moving from Mexico to Texas. It is difficult to trace the history of Día de los Muertos in San Antonio prior to the 1980s. In Mexico, there was a time in which Día de los Muertos was seen as traditional, superstitious, and maybe even borderline Santería. Around the 1950–60s, the government of Mexico saw these traditions dying out and realized that they were unique to Mexico, having roots in its pre-Hispanic indigenous peoples, and that this tradition needed to be saved. Since that time, the celebration has grown and spread, even to San Antonio where our celebrations were named one of the “10 great Day of the Dead celebrations” in the world by USA today.


· Brandes, Stanley. “CALAVERAS: Literary Humor in Mexico’s Day of the Dead.” Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folkore and Popular Culture, edited by PETER NARVÁEZ, University Press of Colorado, Logan, Utah, 2003, pp. 221–238. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nsgh.12.
· Brandes, Stanley. “Iconography in Mexico’s Day of the Dead: Origins and Meaning.” Ethnohistory, vol. 45, no. 2, 1998, pp. 181–218. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/483058.
· Brandes, Stanley. “The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National Identity.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 111, no. 442, 1998, pp. 359–380. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/541045.
· Carmichael, Elizabeth and Chloe Sayer, Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. University of Texas Press; 2001.
· Congdon, Kristin. “MAKING MERRY WITH DEATH: Iconic Humor in Mexico’s Day of the Dead.” Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folkore and Popular Culture, edited by PETER NARVÁEZ, University Press of Colorado, Logan, Utah, 2003, pp. 198–220. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nsgh.11.
· Congdon, Kristin G., et al. “Teaching about the ‘Ofrenda’ and Experiences on the Border.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 40, no. 4, 1999, pp. 312–329. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1320552.
· De Orellana, Margarita, et al. “DAY OF THE DEAD RITUAL SERENITY.” Artes De México, no. 62, 2011, pp. 65–80. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24314384.
· Quinn, Chris, “San Antonio honors the dead in annual Día de Los Muertos festival at La Villita.” Mysanantonio.com. https://www.mysanantonio.com/entertainment/halloween/article/San-Antonio-honors-the-dead-in-annual-D-a-de-Los-12315504.php