As the end of October nears, many are preparing to celebrate Halloween. The perfect costume plan is being hatched and sorted and people can’t wait to dress up before celebrating. This time, though, is also of incredible significance to those who celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Often erroneously described as the “Mexican Halloween,” Día de los Muertos occurs on November 1st and 2nd. It is during this time that those who have left this world may return as the border between the spirit and human worlds disappear. Dance is performed in parades, festivals, and other events celebrating this significant time in Mexican culture. To learn more, I reached out to California State University, Sacramento faculty lecturer in Mexican Folklorico Dance and the artistic director of Ballet Folklorico de Sacramento State, Osvaldo Ramirez Vidales.
MCNEIL CHAND: When describing Día de los Muertos to one who doesn't know much about it, what would you say? Where would you direct people to learn more about its history and importance?
RAMIREZ VIDALES: For anyone who is not acquainted with this syncretic holiday, I would say begin by researching the significance. The research doesn't have to be too elaborative. It can start with reading books, watching videos on YouTube (there are tons of them), have conversations with professors who may know about the subject such as those in Dance, Anthropology, and Chicanx/Latinx studies, watch the movie "Coco" from Disney, chat with someone who may celebrate the holiday, or attend a Día de los Muertos festivity in the community. The more perspectives and sources you can get, the better informed we are about this holiday, understanding that this tradition of death rituals has been present for over 3,000 years in the Americas before colonization. Overall, this holiday revolves around what Native-Indigenous traditions have practiced while also incorporating Catholic customs, making it a celebrated fusion of Central and Southern Mexico and the United States among the Mexican communities.
MCNEIL CHAND: What role does dance play in a typical Día de los Muertos celebration?
RAMIREZ VIDALES: Prior to the colonization of the Americas by the Europeans, each of the Native-Indigenous cultures in this continent had certain customs and traditions around what it meant to die. Depending on their belief system, a set of rituals, processions, chants, or events were performed in specific time frames during their calendar year. Most Native-Indigenous groups in central and southern Mexico shared a similar belief that life is a cycle in which death is merely a transition into the next life.
With the Spanish's arrival and colonization into what we know as Mexico, the Native-Indigenous traditions fused with Catholicism customs. This syncretism of two different belief systems gave birth to the holiday called Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The Catholic church changed the Native-Indigenous traditions by celebrating November 1st and 2nd to pay tribute to children and adults who have passed away, respectively. However, certain Native-Indigenous practices remained intact or hidden from the Catholic church allowing for this fusion of beliefs to continue until today.
In the current tradition, most Central and Southern Mexico states and regions celebrate Día de los Muertos by going to the cemeteries to visit their loved ones placing Cempaxochitl flowers (flower of life), candles, and other ornaments. In other towns or communities, they create altars in their homes with pictures, food, and items that remind them of their loved ones. The food, specifically, is a Native-Indigenous tradition since it provides the energy for the souls to visit and return from Mictlan, the land of the dead, according to the Aztec tradition and culture. Meanwhile, some families hold mass or other specific Native-Indigenous or Catholic traditions performed in Spanish or Native languages. It all depends on the practices included in those communities and each family.
In the world of dance, it allows us to play and get closer to death by "pretending" to be a dead being who dances between this life and the life after death.
Día de los Muertos is celebrated with processions, rituals, prayer, and gathering with family at home or cemeteries. Some communities will have a gathering and may dance socially but not in relation to Día de los Muertos. However, there are some exceptions. One of those is the festival of Xantolo (Festival or abundance of all Saints), which happens in the Huasteca region in Veracruz. Communities gather to a parade where children, teenagers, and adults dress up as death, skeletons, or loved ones. People dance and chant through the main streets while carrying flowers and food items and eventually ending in the cemetery or central plaza. The celebration is for several days between September to October. Each community pays respect to this life cycle transition known as death.
MCNEIL CHAND: Is the dancing usually only done by performers, or do audience members also participate?
RAMIREZ VIDALES: The dancing is done by community members and dance Folklorico groups that are part of the community who know the dance steps, choreography, and movement. Usually, these dances for the Xantolo festival are performed in lines with pairs of dancers forming and executing mirror images in their choreography. There are always leaders and other playful characters dressed in exaggerated or scary outfits that interact with the audience. Sometimes, audience members are invited to participate in the celebration, yet that varies according to the community and region.
Is this dancing usually improvisation or joining in with a known dance? For example, a dance that is learned through family, school, or other cultural events.
Yes, to all of the above. In the example of the Xantolo festival and its dances, dancing is learned as part of the family tradition, sometimes through school as part of that community's cultural education, and through the ongoing recruiting of young people for Folklorico dance groups throughout Mexico. Many dances, not just for Día de los Muertos, but across other holidays, are mostly learned through academia or family tradition. For Xantolo dances, improvisation can occur by audience members who are invited to join. But for the most part, the dancers rehearse well in advance, representing women and men of all ages as a means to pass down the tradition to the next generation.
RAMIREZ VIDALES: In Veracruz, the Xantolo festival includes danzas and sones (indigenous/mestizo dance genres) such as Los Matlachines, Son del Rastro Mictlan, La Tortolita, El Payasito, El Tamal, San Miguel, El Tres Pasitos, and el Torito to name a few. These danzas and sones are called Cuadrillas – like square dancing, where specific line movements have to be coordinated. In other states, if there are no particular dances relating to Día de los Muertos, some communities and dance Folklorico groups opt to dance their traditional regional dances with their faces painted as skulls. This has been a more contemporary approach to celebrating death in a broader perspective as a way to pay tribute and respect, knowing that we all will die at some point; hence dancers will paint their faces and perform their traditional dances at their communities. Concerning death, some other danzas/sones talk about the concept of death like Danza del Venado, which depicts the story of the Yaqui Native people hunting a deer. This dance is unique to the state of Sonora, and its meaning reflects how Yaqui people ask for permission from the nature spirits to take the life of a deer for their survival. Yet, this dance is not related directly to Día de los Muertos, but it exemplifies a tie to death being a life cycle.
MCNEIL CHAND: What else would you like to mention about Día de los Muertos? Is there anything else you'd like to add about the role of dance in the event?
RAMIREZ VIDALES: Mexican culture is Indigenous, African, Asian, and European. This mestizo heritage celebrates death as an important aspect of everyday life. Mexican culture makes jokes about death, bakes a bread called Pan de Muerto (Bread of the death) as a treat, teaches about death through religion, devotes necessary mourning to loved ones who pass away, creates altars to pay tribute to death, talks about it regularly, and will always remain as an integral part of Mexican society. Yet, in the world of dance, it allows us to play and get closer to death by "pretending" to be a dead being who dances between this life and the life after death. In other words, it sort of prepares us for the transition as we embrace it as a natural aspect of our life cycle.
If you’d like to learn more about Día de los Muertos I encourage you to revisit Osvoldo’s first answer in which many options are provided. Additionally, here is a list of suggested books.
Thank you to Osvaldo for offering such knowledge and to Cal Poly Folklorico professor, Horacio Heredia for the insight and introduction.