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The Shapeshifting Nature of Días de los Muertos and its Role in Chicanx Culture

Altar de Muertos | Hagens_world/Flickr/(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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In 1998, a Los Angeles-based newspaper stated, "Los Angeles must be the United States’ Day of the Dead capital…Angelenos take this day seriously — so seriously that many spend the whole month of October making sugar skulls and altars."  Since then, the tradition of annually honoring deceased ancestors and loved ones on November 1 and November 2 has grown exponentially throughout the U.S.  Artists and cultural workers in Chicano communities began teaching about Día de los muertos in the early 1970s, greatly influencing public awareness and the agendas of museums, galleries, educational institutions, cultural programming, and family practices. The 2017 Disney release of "Coco" seems to have further entrenched this Latinx tradition on the calendar of American holidays.

Although often portrayed as a Mexican tradition, the practice of honoring the dead in early November is also part of other Latin American and European cultures, essentially all those shaped by Roman Catholicism. According to scholar Regina Marchi, in parts of Latin America, “Todos Santos” or “El Día de los Difuntos” names the two days combined or one might hear “El Día de Todos los Santos” for November 1 and “El Dia de las Animas” for November 2. In the Chicanx context of North America, the tradition is most commonly known as Día de los muertos. However, I use the plural form, Días, to emphasize the numerous days, if not months, of preparation, as well as the several days that participants actually spend honoring and communing with their dead. Oftentimes, home altars are left standing for at least a week or several weeks after the Catholic official days of November 1 and 2. 

The elaborate tradition of honoring the dead has its roots among the complex Indigenous cultures of Latin America and most notably Mesoamerica (an academic term for the regions and cultural area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica). Each regional culture within each country expresses their respect and love for their dead in distinct ways. Shared elements appear as cleaning the gravesites of loved ones, providing flowers, candles and favorite foods. Bandas are oftentimes paid to play for the dead and the living. Time will be reserved for staying at the cemeteries with family members, sharing memories and feeling affirmed as the dead renew the spirits of the living. At the heart of this tradition is the reciprocal exchange of love between the living and the dead. At times referred to as a mourning ritual, this tradition allows for the range of emotions from joy to sadness to be expressed.  

Mexican family tidying and decorating gravesites for Dia de Muertos at a cemetary in Almoloya del Rio, State of Mexico, Mexico | AlejandroLinaresGarcia/Wikicommons
Mexican family tidying and decorating gravesites for Días de los Muertos at a cemetary in Almoloya del Rio, State of Mexico, Mexico | AlejandroLinaresGarcia/Wikicommons

Attending a Roman Catholic Mass or saying a rosary for the deceased as part of the celebration depends on the devotee’s personal and familial customs. Aspects of pre-Christian Indigenous ritual might be integrated as well, such as the lighting of copal, an incense of tree resin from the copal tree, or the performance of ritual dance and drumming for the dead. A home altar honoring the deceased will be constructed ranging from elaborate ornamentation of Indigenous and/or Christian symbols to a simple display of food, drink and candles on a table. In certain towns in Guatemala, ornate and colorful large-sized kites are flown in the cemeteries “to help traveling spirits find their way back to earth. Notes to the dead are often attached to the kite strings, ascending into heaven as a kind of telecommunication. A festive atmosphere inhabits and surrounds the cemetery. In urban centers of Mexico, mini-carnivals with rides and vendors will be set up adjacent to the cemetery walls as in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca. Days of the Dead provides the time and the space for the living to once again visit with their dead and in the process renew their ancestral bonds and the bonds with one another.

Día de los Muertos celebration in Guatemala | Carla Pineda
Día de los Muertos celebration in Guatemala | Carla Pineda

Culture and traditions are not static. As each generation evolves and social and political contexts change, traditions adapt and reemerge in new forms, while remaining old and new at the same time. Días de los muertos in the hands of Chicanx artists has embraced a freedom to love our dead in personal and uniquely artistic ways. Examining the traditions of honoring the dead among the Nahua, the dominant Indigenous cultural group in central Mexico at the time of the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, and the traditions of the Spanish Catholics at that time, helps to illuminate both the continuity and the reinvention of the tradition among Chicanx communities today.

The Nahua tradition “centered on special food and flower offerings, overnight graveside visits with music and dance, elaborate ceremonies, processions and communal feasting. Extensive public rituals took place during at least six months of the eighteen-month calendar year; several days of each twenty-day month were devoted to honoring the dead. Two of the most important months for public ritual were the ninth, Tlaxcochimaco (August 5-24 of the Gregorian calendar), when the Miccailhuitontli, or “Feast of the Little Dead” (children), took place; and the tenth month, Xocohuetzi (August 25-September 14), which included the Hueymiccaytlhuitl, or the “Feast of the Adult Dead.”  The dead joined the realm of the deity under whose protection fell the circumstances of their death. For example, those who died by drowning entered the realm of the divine spirit of rain, Tlaloc, and were honored during a specific month. Women who died in childbirth were considered as warriors and entered the realm of the sacred sun, Huitzilopochtli. The dead acted as intermediaries between the living and divine beings, and the feasts honoring the sacred cosmic forces included honoring their dead servants as a means to achieve the protection of the “dieties.”  Death caused by old age or certain illnesses necessitated a four-year journey of the deceased to Mictlan, or Place of the Dead, and offerings were meant to assist in their journey. The most elaborate celebrations took place during harvest times when the bounty from the land could be offered to the deceased at the family or community altar in thanksgiving for their blessings on the productivity of the land and of the community. This practice can be witnessed today in more rural communities in Mexico and Latin America.  Fertility, land, harvest, human reproduction and the blessings from the ancestors share a direct relationship enacted through the tradition of Días de los muertos.

Woman lighting copal incense at the cemetery during the "Alumbrada" vigil in San Andrés Mixquic | Jordi Cueto-Felgueroso Arocha/Wikicommons
Woman lighting copal incense at the cemetery during the "Alumbrada" vigil in San Andrés Mixquic | Jordi Cueto-Felgueroso Arocha/Wikicommons
Day of the Dead altars in Metepec, Mexico | AmbarCCPM/Wikicommons
Day of the Dead altars in Metepec, Mexico | AmbarCCPM/Wikicommons

Sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic rituals honoring the dead shared some characteristics with those of indigenous cultures in Latin America. Influenced by Roman practices, Christians also made graveside meal offerings with special bread and prayed to the dead. Belief in an after-life and the ability and responsibility to commune with the dead offered points of intersection between the two belief systems. Pre-Christian Europe also understood a connection between the deceased, agricultural fertility and human reproduction. In the pagan Celtic culture, the harvest celebration of Samhain took place on November 1, the first day of winter. Fires were kept burning all night, and food and drink were prepared for the spirits of the dead. It was believed to be a liminal time when the veil that separated the living and the dead was lifted. In both Europe and Latin America, mating rituals such as courting and gifting took place during the celebrations further emphasizing the blessing of the ancestors and human reproduction. Marchi states, “To facilitate converting Europe’s ‘pagans’ into Christians, the Catholic Church selected the same date for the liturgical celebration of All Saints’ Day, followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2.”  In central Mexico among the Nahua, the Church condensed the numerous days throughout the year that were designated to honor the dead into the two days of Todos Santos.

Syncretism is the term most often used to describe the fusion of distinct religious systems into a new one. This term suggests simple historical contexts and ignores power relations involving physical and spiritual violence. The Indigenous peoples of Latin America had to appropriate Christian rites and symbols yet hold onto their own cultural knowledge in a way that would enable them to maintain balance and harmony in their drastically changing world beginning in the 16th century. Despite the heavy handed and violent tactics of the Spaniards in planting Christianity on the continent, Indigenous sensibilities and practices honoring the dead survived. Today, in the tradition of Días de los muertos, we have the rich fusion of Latin American Indigenous ways and symbols interfacing with official and non-official Catholic practices and symbols, most evident in the display of offerings on a home altar or ofrenda where one might find a petate laid on the floor with the Indigenous incense, copal, burning alongside native agricultural products such as nopales, beans, squash, avocado and chiles, and a Christian crucifix or image of a Catholic saint and the Indigenous and Catholic divine mother, Guadalupe/Tonantzin, integrated into the display of offerings.     

In some less urbanized areas of the Southwest, Mexican American families did maintain the tradition over the generations by visiting gravesites and/or attending a Catholic Mass. But it was not until 1972 that the public festive celebration of Días de los muertos appeared in Chicano communities in the urban centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco, with Sacramento and San Diego soon following. During the height of the Chicano movement for civil rights, Chicana/o artists at Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles and their peers at Galería de la Raza in the Mission District of San Francisco learned from their Mexican counterparts and one another and recreated the tradition. According to artist Daniel Gonzalez in reflecting on this time, “Day of the Dead was not only a way to commemorate the dead and commune with ancestors. It became a way of establishing identity, a vehicle for protest, and a way to publicly mourn and process the harsh experience of loss at a time when veterans were returning [or not] from Vietnam.”  In the 1970s, Chicano communities were under siege with police brutality, high push out rates from schools, substandard housing, low wages and the war draft. Although the first event at Self Help Graphics & Art honoring the dead was small it did include a procession from the local cemetery, the building of an ofrenda, and the sharing of food. By 1976, participants numbered several thousand making a larger procession, more altars and art exhibits.  Community-based workshops creating art for the celebration became a way to resist the oppressions through community affirmation. Altar-making became a central medium to communicate information about deaths due to sociopolitical injustices occurring in the community and internationally.

Group shot of artists from Self Help Graphics & Art including Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibáñez and Sister Karen Boccalero | Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art
Group shot of artists from Self Help Graphics & Art including Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibáñez and Sister Karen Boccalero | Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art
Día de los Muertos 1977| Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art
Día de los Muertos 1977 | Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art
Car altar with Virgen de Guadalupe during Self Help Graphics & Art's Día de los Muertos procession | Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art
Car altar with Virgen de Guadalupe during Self Help Graphics & Art's Día de los Muertos procession | Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art

In San Francisco, the city’s first Day of the Dead ofrenda exhibit and educational activities took place at Galería de la Raza. According to Marchi,“This small gallery would have a profound influence on the future shape of Day of the Dead celebrations in the United States, both in encouraging hybrid experimentation with and ‘mainstreaming’ the altar format.” By 1981, the gallery organized its first procession that over the years grew to attract thousands of participants. Although no longer sponsoring the procession, this aspect of the tradition remains a vibrant part of the celebration in the Mission District of San Francisco.   

As more Chicanx teachers, cultural workers and university professors experience the tradition and understand its cultural, spiritual and political significance for Chicanx communities, they incorporate teaching about Días de los muertos into their curriculum. Student groups now organize annual celebrations such as Cal Poly, Pomona and  California State University, Northridge, and more museums and galleries schedule annual Days of the Dead exhibitions. News coverage of exhibitions and events have proliferated over the years and now in 2019 most cities and towns with Latinx populations organize annual Días de los muertos events that are well advertised. While this visibility has helped to normalize the tradition as an American one crossing geopolitical borders, corporate interests are marketing the tradition with mass-produced items made in China and many consumers are using it “simply as an aesthetic to decorate their parties.”  These marketing schemes and insensitive choices ignore the deep historical and spiritual roots of the tradition and silence its political significance emphasized within Chicanx communities, that has also influenced a more political tone to its expression in Mexico. For Chicanx participants, Días de los muertos was reclaimed and continues to function as what art historian and curator, Sybil Venegas calls “a sacred right of self preservation.”

Our annual communal celebrations to honor the dead create continuity with ancestral spiritual practices and beliefs. As Mesoamerican populations cyclically asked the hearts of their dead ones to return from the sacred mountains so that new life and a new harvest might continue, so, too, Chicanx/Latinx are replenished and renewed when they invite their dead to return. The reinvention of traditional ways to express contemporary concerns strengthens a people as they continue on in their struggles for justice. As Días de los muertos continues to grow in popularity it defies efforts to silence and dismiss a population deemed irrelevant to U.S. society. Días de los muertos does not replicate patterns of exclusion. With its color, humor, and friendly yet honest spirit, the tradition invites all people to approach death and the “other” without fear. The silence of death and the pain of exclusion are challenged in the festivity and truthfulness of this public mourning ritual.   


BOCA 1, no. 3 (October-November 1998). “Celebrate Día de los Muertos All Month Long.”

González, Daniel. “Raíz y Rama: At the Crossroads to Mictlán: a curatorial statement.” La Calavera Pocha, November 2, 2013.

Marchi, Regina. Day of the Dead in the USA. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Medina, Lara and Gilbert R. Cadena. “Días de los Muertos: Public Ritual, Community Renewal, and Popular Religion in Los Angeles.” Horizons of the Sacred: Mexican Traditions in U.S. Catholicism. Edited by Timothy Matovina and Gary Riebe-Estrella, SVD, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Venegas, Sybil. “Day of the Dead in Aztlán: Chicano Variations on the Theme of Life, Death and Self Preservation.” M.A. thesis, University of California at Los Angeles, 1995.

Top Image: Altar de Muertos | Hagens_world/Flickr/(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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