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'Day Of The Dead' Traditions Cross Over Into U.S. Mainstream Culture

First Posted: 11/01/11 08:29 AM ET Updated: 11/03/11 07:39 PM ET

Once a little-known and misunderstood tradition celebrated in Southern Mexico and Latin America, the Day of the Dead is crossing over into mainstream U.S. culture with a whirlwind of exhibitions, parties, educational projects, art classes and parades throughout the country.

In parts of Latin America, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated Nov. 1-2 with families remembering the dead with graveside picnics, all-night vigils and prayer gatherings. They decorate the graves of loved ones with marigolds, candles, sugar-coated skulls and the favorite dishes of the departed.

The pre-Columbian tradition combines themes and rituals drawn from indigenous practices and Roman Catholicism. In fact, the holiday coincides with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

But the burgeoning Latin American population in the U.S. and increasing influence of Hispanic culture have propelled the tradition well north the border and given it new flavor and flourishes, the Associated Press reported:

In Houston, artists hold a "Day of the Dead Rock Stars" where they pay homage to departed singers like Joey Ramone, Johnny Cash and even "El Marvin Gaye."

Community centers in Los Angeles build altars for rapper Tupac Shakur and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

"It's everywhere now," says Carlos Hernandez, 49, a Houston-based artist who launched the "Day of the Dead Rock Stars" event. "You can even get Dia de los Muertos stuff at Wal-Mart."

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  • Dia de los Muertos

    Dia De Los Muertos (Day of The Dead) honors the dead. On November 1st, people come together to give offerings and pray for deceased family members. The origins of this holiday can be traced to indigenous cultures in Mexico. Today, however, it is celebrated worldwide. <a href="" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by Glen</a>

  • Skulls

    Skulls are one the most popular props during Day of The Dead celebrations. Some are made out of wood and others are sugar-coated skulls with the name of the deceased attached them.

  • Famous Skeleton

    Comical depictions of death are very popular during this holiday. Above is a figure of a skeleton representing Mexican Revolution hero Emiliano Zapata.

  • Altar Celebrates Death

    Families build altars in honor of their loved ones who have passed away. Altars can be quite simple, with just a few shelves and boxes covered by colorful cloths. Others, like the one above, can be much more elaborate, with Day of The Dead dolls, candles and luscious fabrics. Altars become places for offerings.

  • Offerings

    The offerings placed on the altar usually include items the spirit can use in the afterlife as well as pictures of the deceased and other personal belongings. Many people like to leave earthly indulgences such as cigarettes or a bottle of tequila.

  • Food For The Dead

    An elaborate bread offering.

  • No Smoking, please.

    One person takes advantage of "Day of the Dead" to advocate against future deaths caused by smoking.

  • House of Death

    "Day of The Dead" transforms a Mexico cemetery into a sea of lights.

  • Ciudad Juarez Cemetery

    People visit their deceased loved ones on "Day of the Dead" at a cemetery in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Ciudad Juarez has become one of the world's deadliest cities, the epicenter of Mexico's drug war.

  • Love in the Time of Death

    A couple, their faces painted in white, kiss during Day of the Dead celebrations.

  • Love Continues...

    A bridge and groom, in over-sized skull masks, take a moment to pose.

  • A Dead Bride

    Day of The Dead inspires creativity. <a href="" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by psyberatist </a>

  • Keeping Up With Tradition

    Day of The Dead is celebrated by people of all ages. <a href="" target="_hplink">Flick photo by Christine Zenino </a>

In North America, decorations often center on images of La Calavera Catrina, a skeleton of an upper-class woman whose image was made popular by the late-Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada.

She is typically seen on photos or through papier-mache statues alongside other skeletal figures in everyday situations like playing soccer, dancing or getting married.

"She is our best-selling item," said Torres, 35, who owns the Masks y Mas in Albuquerque, N.M., a shop that sells Day of the Dead art and clothing year-round. "I have artists sending me their Catrina pieces from all over."

Albuquerque's National Hispanic Cultural Center hosts an annual "Dia de los Muertos Community Gathering." This year it is exhibiting an altar by Mexican-American novelist Sandra Cisneros dedicated to her mother.

The city also hosts an annual parade where marchers dress in Day of the Dead gear and makeup, and organizes a "Day of the Tread" bike and marathon race.

Events are not limited to the Southwest. Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has a Day of the Dead altar on permanent display and offers Day of the Dead art classes to students in second to eighth grades.

And in New York City, the Brooklyn Arts Council recently initiated a year-long Day of the Dead education project to heighten public awareness "on mourning and remembrance."

In Illinois, the Chicago Urban Arts Society marks the occasion with a Baile de las Calaveras, with proceeds going to the Mujeres Latinas en Accion, a bi-cultural organization.

In San Francisco, traditional Day of the Dead altars and art installations created by more than 80 Bay area artists will be part of an exhibit titled "Illuminations: Dia de los Muertos 2011." Also in the Bay area, The Marigold Project will stage its annual Festival of Altars and procession at Garfield Park.

In New Jersey, the oldest cemetery in New Brunswick will be transformed into a sea of light Saturday as the Raices Cultural Center hosts the inaugural Dia de los Muertos family arts day at the First Reformed Church and its adjacent 18th century graveyard.

"We're going to light the place up," the center's co-director Francisco Gomez told the Newark Star-Ledger. "Our ensemble will be playing songs for the dead. When we asked the reverend if we can put candles and flowers around the cemetery, I was expecting him to say no but he turned around and said he's so happy that somebody is giving attention to the graves."

Even in Mexico, where Day of the Dead continues to be a largely reverent and rural tradition intended to celebrate death, the festivities have taken on a modern, commercial feel.

"Dia de los Muertes in Mexico has become a bit of a free-for-all, a five-day weekend with parties and drinking, a smash-up where dad dons a Spider Man costume and mom dresses up as a naughty French maid -- to honor their ancestors, of course," The Washington Post reports. "It's more pop, more pagan and more commercial. There's even some trick or treating, which would have been unheard of a decade ago."

On both sides of the border, many fear the spiritual side of the tradition is being lost, supplanted by Halloween-like revelry.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, where Day of the Dead is one of the most important holidays, the cemeteries are packed with U.S. and European tourists snapping photos of villagers praying at burial sites.

"I think the more people look beyond the art and learn about it, the more people will understand its real significance," Oscar Lozoya, 57, an Albuquerque-based photographer told the Associated Press.



Filed by Ray Sanchez  |  Report Corrections