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Texas History

Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead traditions celebrate the circle of life in Mexican culture

My late friend Dallas had a healthy perspective on death.

Also known as Nevada Slim, Dallas Turner, who passed on in 2014 at nearly 90, was a singing cowboy and radio pitchman. Though he was not eager to leave this world, he was excited about discovering the essence that remains when one’s blood ceases to pulse. And Dallas promised to return and visit me from the other side. His vow reminds me of the Mexican and Mexican-American traditions of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

We all carry in our hearts the memories of loved ones who have traveled on, and each November 1 and 2, many Texans commemorate that remembrance with elaborate celebrations. They prepare ofrendas, or altars, for the dead where they display photographs and treasured items of the departed as well as favorite foods and beverages. Celebrants don skeleton costumes, paint their faces like calaveras (skulls) and decorate gravesites with sugar skulls and the flor de los muertos, or flower of death. Usually marigolds, the bright and pungent flower petals are placed to guide loved ones from their graves back to their former homes.

Celebrate death? Absolutely, Bertha Zubiate of Presidio explains in preparation for Dia de los Muertos at Marfa’s Chinati Foundation. The Mexican philosophy that informs Day of the Dead teaches that death does not represent the end of life but rather the passage through another existence. Like the round pan de muertos, or bread of death, the Mexican worldview sees life as never-ending.

In her book, Digging the Days of the Dead, the late scholar Juanita Garciagodoy traces the roots of Dia de los Muertos to Mesoamerican cultures, following Span-ish and folk influences. Over the centuries, she says, a festival in which the Aztecs reunited with the departed was blended with Catholic observances of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to initiate the tradition.

“It’s important to remember that Day of the Dead is an indigenous celebration of family,” explains Ward S. Albro, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and one of the authors of The Day of the Dead—Dia de los Muertos. “When I first got interested in it many years ago, though it was observed in South Texas, it really wasn’t widely known in Mexico north of Mexico City. Now it’s a national holiday in Mexico.”

Regina M. Marchi, a Latino Studies professor at Rutgers University, notes in her book Day of the Dead in the USA that South Texans have cleaned and decorated ancestors’ graves since at least the 1890s, but before the 1970s, these commemorations did not generally include creating ofrendas, burning copal incense, or making pan de muertos and sugar skulls.

After years of presenting muertos talks through the Humanities Texas Distinguished Speakers Bureau, Albro confirms that the tradition has spread from the Rio Grande to the Red River.

The city of Tyler hosted its first public Day of the Dead celebration in 2016. The 2017 Denison festival and parade, featuring large skeleton marionettes, will be the town’s seventh annual event. Funds raised through the Dia de los Muertos Celebration of Life at West Texas A&M University in Canyon go to scholarships. Denton’s lively reunion of the living and the dead has grown to include coffin races since its debut in 2011. The Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg exhibits altars made by residents and maintains an archive of images and stories.

In a radio interview on Marfa Public Radio, Zubiate explained that altars often display as many as 20 symbols. The papel picado, colored paper cut with beautiful muertos designs, symbolizes the air as the souls of the dead pass though the paper. Fruits and flowers represent the earth. Fire lights the way for spirits’ return, and the vital element of water gives life anew.

“We learn about death when he puts his hand on the ones we love,” added radio guest Azusena Nunez, “and that loss is our legacy.”

“But nobody really dies,” said radio host Lorne Matalon, “until someone stops remembering them.”

Gene Fowler specializes in Texas history.