Dia de los Muertos: A Celebration


It’s that time of year again when religion and culture come together for a mix of somber and fun events.

Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve), with its costumes and trick or treat tradition, and Dia de los Muertos, practiced by indigenous people of Mexico for centuries, come on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. Also, in some Christian traditions, Nov. 1 is observed as All Saint’s Day and Nov. 2 as All Souls day.

Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, is so significant that in 2008 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added the day to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

“El Dia de los Muertos, as practiced by indigenous communities of Mexico, commemorates the transitory return to Earth of deceased relatives and loved ones,” the UNESCO site says.

On Saturday, Oct. 23, Joyce Martinez-Sledge, representing Cultura Local ABI, gave a presentation at the Center for Contemporary Arts as the monthly program of the Abilene Interfaith Council. She explained that as fun as “El Dia” may be, it’s roots are spiritual, like many traditions. 

“It comes down to the foundation of their beliefs,” Martinez-Sledge said.

Joyce Martinez-Sledge explains her ofrenda, which is a major part of Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Photo by Loretta Fulton

A couple of opportunities to experience the rich tradition of Dia de los Muertos are coming Nov. 1 and 2. On Monday, Nov. 1, Aida Pantoja will stage a Day of the Dead Celebration beginning at 6 p.m. at Sears Park. It is a free community event, featuring the St. Vincent Pallotti  Catholic Church’s Ballet Folklorico, a mariachi band, community altar, and more. Several businesses will have tables set up and will hand out goodies to everyone.

All are invited to bring a photo of a deceased loved one to place on it. Among the participants are The Grace Museum, Abilene Public Library, and North’s Funeral Home. For more information, call Pantoja at 721-1568. 

On Tuesday, Nov. 2, Cultura Local ABI will present a virtual Remember Me Tribute on its Facebook page, with different tributes scheduled over four hours:

5 p.m.–Marigolds and Mariposas (Cempasuchitl Workshop)|
6 p.m.–Nicho Boxes (Folk Art Workshop)
7 p.m.–Ballet Folklorico Del Big Country (Alma de Nuestras Raices, a special tribute performance)
8 p.m.–Remember Me Community Tribute (Art Exhibit from Abilene High School)

The spiritual and celebratory elements of El Dia were on vivid display Oct. 23, when 

Martinez-Sledge gave her presentation. She created a beautiful altar with an ofrenda that is one of the primary features of Dia de los Muertos. The ofrenda consists of favorite foods, drinks, and symbols that tell something of the loved one being celebrated. 

“If you visit different ofrendas,” Martinez-Sledge said, “you get to meet the person.”

Close up of an ofrenda, created by Joyce Martinez-Sledge, as part of the 2021 Dia de Los Muertos observance. Photo by Loretta Fulton

On Saturday, the featured person was Martinez-Sledge’s father, who died in April. The ofrenda can represent one or more loved ones. And the loved one doesn’t have to be human, as Martinez-Sledge demonstrated a year ago.

“I did have a picture of my daughter’s cat,” she said.

The ofrenda that was featured Oct. 23 had the traditional candles, flowers, and skulls, plus items that told something about the man being honored. Among those was an old album jacket with the title, “Voices from the Dead.” The ofrenda also held a nicho box, which is similar to a shadow box filled with mementoes of the deceased.

Day of the Dead celebration begins at 6 p.m. Nov. 1 in Sears Park.

“El Dia” traditionally is celebrated in a cemetery, where the graves of loved ones are decorated with representative items. The day also traditionally is a cemetery cleanup day, much like Memorial Day is in the United States. Favorite drinks and foods, including the traditional pan de muerto, also are placed on the graves. 

In her presentation, Martinez-Sledge explained that celebrations similar to Dia de los Muertos date to the Olmecs, who inhabited the coast of Veracruz and western Tabasco on the Gulf of Mexico from approximately 1200 to 400 BCE, followed by the Toltecs and Aztecs. Originally celebrated by indigenous people who worshipped many gods and goddesses, Dia de los Muertos today is primarily associated with Catholicism, although it is celebrated by non-Catholics with Hispanic heritage.

Martinez-Sledge explained that Dia de los Muertos actually covers two days. Beginning at midnight Oct. 31, deceased children are the focus.

“We celebrate them”  Martinez-Sledge said. “We don’t mourn.”

A virtual Remember Me Tribute begins at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, on the Cultura Local ABI Facebook page.

Beginning at midnight Nov. 1, the lives of deceased adults are celebrated. Worshippers believe that at those times–midnight Oct. 1 and Nov. 1–the skies open and the souls of the departed come through a thin line to join with loved ones in the celebration.

Another symbol of Dia de los Muertos is the monarch butterfly. That association dates to the Aztecs, who believed that the butterflies, which arrived in Mexico at the same time each year in late fall, carried the spirits of the deceased. 

Martinez-Sledge urged all Abilenians to check out the virtual Remember Me Tribute that will on the Cultura Local ABI Facebook page beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 2. 

“We really want to remember why we do this,” she said.

Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene


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