This video from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly offers a behind-the-scenes look at how Latin American communities across the U.S. honor their deceased on Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos. Celebrants believe that the spirits of the dead return every year on this day, which coincides with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The video also shows how Day of the Dead rituals follow the Catholic Church’s teachings about life and death.
When Spanish Conquistadors arrived more than 500 years ago in the area that is now Mexico, they encountered native people venerating the dead. During this annual ritual, now known as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, natives believed that the souls of deceased relatives returned to offer protection to the loved ones they left behind.
The Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of earthly life, believed the rite was sacrilegious. They tried to eradicate the ritual during their attempts to convert the natives to Catholicism, but their efforts were in vain. The natives, believing that life continued after death, were hard-pressed to do away with a ritual that had been so deeply woven into their culture for more than 3,000 years.
The Day of the Dead festival used to take place over one month's time during the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar, which coincides with August. Today it is celebrated on November 2, a date chosen by the Spaniards in an effort to keep the festival associated with the Christian holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The holiday -- celebrated in Mexico, as well as in parts of the United States and Central and South America -- is one example of how Mexican culture has been incorporated into the U.S.
The traditions associated with this day differ, depending on where it is celebrated. In general, it is more of a cultural event in urban areas, and more of a religious one in rural Mexican areas. Common to both is the practice of offering food and other objects to deceased loved ones. In rural parts of Mexico, people spend the day in the cemeteries where their relatives are buried. They bring ofrendas (offerings) such as flowers, toys and food to place on the tombstones. Those who choose not to visit the cemeteries often build altars, including food, flowers, prayer candles, and photos of the deceased, in their homes. The use of the skull, one of the basic elements of the Aztec ritual, continues to be incorporated into today's rituals. There are skull masks, chocolate- or sugar-shaped skulls and skull-shaped pan de los muertos (sweetened bread).
KIM LAWTON: In many communities, Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a joyful public event, with parades celebrating the belief that, for this one day every year, the spirits of loved ones have returned. Families often hold private observances as well.
ROCIO BERMUDEZ (in Spanish): Estamos de fiesta. Es una fiesta.
LUIS BERMUDEZ (translating): We are in a festive mode right now. It's a party.
LAWTON: In Rockville Maryland, Rocio and Luis Bermudez incorporate their Roman Catholic faith with their Mexican-American traditions, building a special altar in their home. On the altar they place pictures of their deceased family members and a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Candles are lit to help the spirits find their way down from heaven. Water is put out to replenish the thirsty souls after their long journey. And since it's a party, the altar is decorated with colorful papers and treats.
Mr. BERMUDEZ: The mango, the water, the tequila--it's all an enticement so that they will come, and when they come they'll have their favorite foods that they can celebrate with us.
LAWTON: When the altar is finished, the family offers prayers for both the living and the dead.
Mr. BERMUDEZ: We then pray to the Virgin Mary, to the saints, and to the Lord so that they're with us, as well as our loved ones, as a sign of respect for God.
LAWTON: The Bermudez family says the Day of the Dead ritual reflects the Catholic Church's teaching about life and death.
Mr. BERMUDEZ: The belief is that when we die our body physically isn't here, but our spirit still lives on forever. We actually are reborn. So that's what we celebrate. The spirit doesn't die, it lives on.
LAWTON: For the Bermudez family, that's something to celebrate every year.
Mr. BERMUDEZ: I believe when I go and I die, my spirit is going to go to heaven, and then every year I'll be coming back on the Day of the Dead to visit down here to my loved ones.
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