ELAR Showcase: Day of the Dead

By Francesca Brown|November 1, 2019|Showcase|0 comments

The Day of the Dead is one of Mexico’s most iconic festivities. It is celebrated every year from the 31st of October to the 2nd of November, corresponding to the catholic holidays of All Saints (Todos Santos) and All Souls (Fieles Difuntos). The Day of the Dead celebrations as practiced by the indigenous communities of Mexico were inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. Families traditionally visit the graves of loved ones, and set up an altar (ofrenda) at their homes. Altars and graves are generally decorated with flowers, candles, and pictures of the deceased, as well as sweet bread (pan de muertos), candy skulls and the deceased’s favourite food and drink. It is believed that the souls of the dead return to collect these offerings. These traditions have both prehispanic as well as catholic roots, and vary from region to region.

Despite of Mexico’s cultural and linguistic diversity, Day of the Dead celebrations can be found throughout the country, and ELAR’s Mexican collections are full of wonderful examples of these.

Enrique Palancar's deposit: María Estrada Martínez tells us about the tradition of offering small loaves of sweet bread (chihwini) during the celebration of the Day of the Dead. Acces the video here.

Still from the Documentation of Matlatzinca, an Oto-Manguean language of Mexico by Enrique Palancar: María Estrada Martínez tells us about the tradition of offering small loaves of sweet bread (chihwini) during the celebration of the Day of the Dead. Acces the video here.

Like many of the collections held at ELAR, almost all of the bundles related to the Day of the Dead celebrations are accessible only to registered users. To register and discover these collections, follow this link.

Jonathan Amith’s collection on Documentation of Nahuatl Knowledge of Natural History, Material Culture, and Ecology includes recordings on the cultivation and harvest of Amaranthaceae and Cempasúchil – or Mexican Marigold – used to decorate graves and altars for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Tagetes erecta L., also known as Aztec Marigold, is known as the flor de muertos ("flower of the dead") in Mexico and is used in the Día de Muertos celebration. Also called i'ta' kwa'on' ta'ta' (Yoloxóchit Mixtec), sempowalxōchit (Sierra Nororiental de Puebla Nahuatl); qalhpuxam (Zongozotla Totonac). Photographer: Mariano Gorostiza Salazar

Photograph from the documentation of Nahuatl Knowledge of Natural History, Material Culture, and Ecology by Jonathan Amith: Tagetes erecta L., also known as Aztec Marigold, is known as the flor de muertos (“flower of the dead”) in Mexico and is used in the Día de Muertos celebration. Also called i’ta’ kwa’on’ ta’ta’ (Yoloxóchit Mixtec), sempowalxōchit (Sierra Nororiental de Puebla Nahuatl); qalhpuxam (Zongozotla Totonac). Photographer: Mariano Gorostiza Salazar

Gomphrena globosa L., also known as the globe amaranth, another Day of the Dead flower. Also known as i'ta' sa'ñi' ta'ta' (Yoloxóchit Mixtec), olōxōchit tein ista:k (Sierra Nororiental de Puebla Nahuatl) and pasma: xanat (Zongozotla Totonac). Photographer: Canek Ledesma Corral.

Photograph from the documentation of Nahuatl Knowledge of Natural History, Material Culture, and Ecology by Jonathan Amith: Gomphrena globosa L., also known as the globe amaranth, another Day of the Dead flower. Also known as i’ta’ sa’ñi’ ta’ta’ (Yoloxóchit Mixtec), olōxōchit tein ista:k (Sierra Nororiental de Puebla Nahuatl) and pasma: xanat (Zongozotla Totonac). Photographer: Canek Ledesma Corral.

Further recordings of these particular flowers have been recorded, transcribed and translated in Highland Puebla Nahuat in the DEMCA database (Documenting Ethnobiology in Mexico and Central America). Here, you can listen to discussions on the Tagetes erecta L. in Highland Puebla Nahuat and the Gophrena Serrata in Yoloxóchitl mixteco.

Denis Costaouec’s and Michael Swanton’s collection on Textual and Lexical Documentation of Ixcatec offer insights about the preparations for the Day of the Dead festivities, as well as stories surrounding the celebrations.

In Telma Can Pixabaj’s collection on Documentation of formal and ceremonial discourses in K’ichee’ you can find out about the way All Souls Day is celebrated in Mexico’s neighbour country Guatemala. The collection holds recordings on how the cemeteries are decorated, what types of food are offered, and how traditions have been changing over the years.  

If you are interested in the meaning of the different elements of the Altar de Muertos in the Matlatzinca community, how the altar is decorated, what offerings are made to the dead, and the role of the pan de muertos and traditional mole sauce, check out Enrique L. Palancar’s Documentation of Matlatzinca, an Oto-Manguean language of Mexico. His collection also contains recordings of community members explaining rituals that take place on the Day of the Dead, like visiting the cemetery and collecting the mole.

Anselmo García explains how the offerring for the Day of the Dead is made and the elements that the altar should have, as well as who taught him how to set it and how he learned to make bread for the dead. Access the video here.

Still from the Documentation of Matlatzinca, an Oto-Manguean language of Mexico by Enrique Palancar: Anselmo García explains how the offering for the Day of the Dead is made and the elements that the altar should have, as well as who taught him how to set it and how he learned to make bread for the dead. Access the video here.

Still from the Documentation of Matlatzinca, an Oto-Manguean language of Mexico by Enrique Palancar: Mrs. Lucia Estrada tells us what one places at the Day of the Dead offering among the Matlatzincas. Access the video here.

Roberto Zavala Maldonado and Wendy Liz Arbey López Márquez’s collection Documentation of five Zoquean languages spoken in Mexico: Highland Popoluca contains a narrative about the portal leading to the place where the dead reside.

Information about the preparations of the Day of the Dead celebrations in the Chiapas Zoque speaking community can be found in Roberto Zavala Maldonado, Ernesto Ramírez Muñoz, and Román de La Cruz Morales’ collection Documentation of five Zoquean languages spoken in Mexico: Chiapas Zoque.

In Rosemary G. Beam de Azcona and Emiliano Cruz Santiago’s collection Documentation of Miahuatec Zapotec (dí’zdéh) of San Bartolomé Loxicha you can listen to a narrative about what happens to those who do not offer anything to the deceased.

Still from Documentation of Miahuatec Zapotec (dí’zdéh) of San Bartolomé Loxicha / Documentación del zapoteco miahuateco (dí’zdéh) de San Bartolomé Loxicha by Rosemary G. Beam de Azcona and Emiliano Cruz Santiago: Story of a man who didn’t practice the Day of the Dead. Access the video here.

Thank you to all depositors for their contribution!

Blog post by Leonore Lukschy & Francesca Brown

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