The Meaning Behind the Day of the Dead in Mexico

Writing in honor of my grandpa, to raise cultural awareness on a Mexican holiday.

What would you do if you knew you only had one week to live? One month? One year?

When death is around the corner, every minute of the day becomes an opportunity to live. Every interaction you make becomes valuable and treasured. You try to connect with others on a deeper level that the common “How are you? Great, the weather is nice today.” Or “I had a good day at work, what about you?”

It goes past the extent of a polite exchange of words. It becomes a desire to learn about what fills the other person with joy, to learn about the reasons they are motivated, the hardships they’ve overcome. You learn to celebrate the living.

How do I know this?

Let’s go back 3 years ago.

I come to Mexico to my grandparents’ house to visit for a couple of weeks.  I call it my childhood home because I used to come every summer before I turned 16 to spend the summers here. Sadly, It had been some years since I visited… ever since I started working it was harder to step away from my responsibilities.  I visit because I had some weeks after my summer internship was over and my study abroad program to Spain began. It was the perfect time to step away and spend some time with my grandparents. It filled my heart with happiness knowing I would be able to come home to them for a bit.

Grandpa & I from Day 1!

Also, you should know that unlike most Hispanic families, mine is tiny. Being part of a small family, we’re quite close-knit. My grandpa is the closest I’ve had to a fatherly figure for many years. That tells you a bit about our grandfather-granddaughter relationship. He was always there for me.

Two days before I was scheduled to leave Mexico, we were home and I was alone in the room with him. We had exchanged words and I was waiting for him to fall asleep. Some seconds later, I was screaming… I was screaming and begging him to come back. He didn’t. I saw death take him away before my eyes.

Seeing a breathing human, and someone you love so much, transform into a lifeless stone is unimaginable. I still don’t understand why God chose me to experience it. I wasn’t made to be that strong. I didn’t know how to help my grandma cope, I didn’t know how to accept that he was gone in the blink of an eye and that there was nothing I could say to bring him back.

Moments like these change you for life.

At that point, I had the option to stay and mourn alongside my family, or start my pre-paid study abroad program in Madrid two weeks later. I chose the latter and wandered unknown streets feeling guilty and heartbroken. By choice, my coping journey involved being in another continent at a time in which I needed my family the most. At times, memories of my grandpa would come flooding as would the tears. However, over the course of weeks, I made a couple of lifelong friends who I opened up to about my sadness and they became my support system. I also chose to travel alone a few times because I learned that that was when I felt like my grandpa was accompanying me, watching over me. I learned that there is no right way or wrong way to mourn. If you choose to travel after the death of a loved one, I understand.

Solo trip to Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, Córdoba, Spain.

3 years later, I find myself back in Mexico. I hadn’t been back ever since partly because I felt a hole in my heart thinking about going back to my grandparents’ house without having my grandpa there. I knew walking through these streets would remind me of the funeral home, the cemetery, that horrendous night.

And they do. But being here specifically during Mexico’s celebration of the Day of the Dead, I was able to find peace.

What exactly is this celebration I’m talking about? How can you celebrate death? Let me explain it to you as best as I can.

El Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is actually a celebration of life and time of remembrance. Your heart fills with joy and you momentarily forget about the tears. You know everyone around you is thinking of their loved ones that have passed. You share a mutual understanding with humanity about a topic seldom talked about. You acknowledge that you leave a mark in this world and that you’re remembered once you leave this life.

Millions throughout the country prepare their “ofrendas” for days. You find ofrendas, which translates to “offerings” in homes, placed in businesses, lined along city parks, placed around burial grounds. These ofrendas include flowers, candles, religious symbols, photos of the deceased, and most importantly, the favorite food of those that you’re preparing the ofrenda for. It’s common to prepare a home-cooked meal for that person(s), and serve them the way you would if they were still among the living. You pray. You tell stories about the person. You remember them as if they were about to walk into the room and go on with their ordinary day.

Ofrenda at my grandparents’ house for my grandpa and uncle.

The Day of the Dead is a three-day festivity, from October 31st to November 2nd. It’s a celebration that dates back to the Aztecs, it has been part of the Mexican culture for over 3,000 years. In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed Mexico’s Day of the Dead an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Yes, the Day of the Dead is also represented in Spectre, the James Bond movie which created world-wide recognition to the vibrant and colorful parade through downtown Mexico City. But in reality, this is a new tradition that was created by demand. To get a better idea on what the celebration is like, read Steph’s blog on experiencing the Day of the Dead in Mexico City. 

Exhibit in Mexico’s City “Museo de Arte Popular”.

So next year when you’re preparing for Halloween, and you happen to see or hear about an ofrenda, you should ask the person who it is for. You should ask them to tell you a fun story about the person they are honoring. You can be open about your personal loss, or simply serve as a listening ear. I promise you the gesture will be greatly appreciated.

Having seen his life vanish before my eyes, made me the most aware of how life is not guaranteed for anyone. Life is a gift to be treasured and cherished. I invite you to celebrate the Day of the Living with me, every day!

Life’s too precious to waste even a single day.

Signed while eating traditional pan de muerto,

Salma Travel Guru

b29a703a-aefc-4f0a-b6c1-97e164124855use my own experiences to be you travel guru.


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