Día de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead or All Souls’ Day, is a Mexican holiday that reunites the living and dead, when people celebrate and honor their loved ones who have passed away. Often confused as the Latino version of Halloween, this two-day custom takes place every November 1st and 2nd, and celebrates life and life after death. Although it was originated in Mexico, it is celebrated in Latin America and among many Latinos living in the U.S.
Many may recognize the funky skulls with make-up, costumes and flowers, without understanding its origin- so how can non-Latinos engage in this celebration? There are multiple components brought to life superbly by Disney Pixar with their animated film COCO, inspired by various Mexican traditions and folklore of the holiday. And the holiday is actively celebrated across the USA, as well!
One of the traditions showcased in the movie is the Altars, which serve more as an offering or ofrenda for the deceased rather than a memorial. The Day of the Dead Altars help guide the spirits back to the land of the living on the Noche de Muertos on November 2nd. The altar arrangements vary from region to region, but often have three or more tiers: the top tier represents the divine on which religious items are usually placed along with a picture of the loved one; the middle tier is about the loved one’s life and is decorated with food, drinks, and personal items; the base tier is a representation of the loved one’s connection to the land of the dead and it is usually decorated with skulls. The entire altar is decorated with incense, candles, food, and the traditional Marigold flowers which are believed to help guide the deceased to the altar. A trail of Marigolds is often placed from the loved one’s grave to the home of their family where the altar is located, so beautifully depicted in the movie. According to tradition, the graves serve as doorways through which the souls return and as such are also decorated with candles and ofrendas. Additionally, other forms of celebration include parades, music, dancing, wearing makeup, etc.
Regardless of the region, the mandatory component of the holiday is the Calavera, or the skull, which is the most iconic symbol of the Day of the Dead, manifested on masks, figurines, papel picado banners and more. Sugar or chocolate skulls often have the name of the loved one on the forehead as a way to celebrate and acknowledge their impact on the living.
Yes, Disney Pixar’s beautiful and vibrant depiction of this poignant tradition merits accolades, not just for its artistic animation, but also for celebrating this custom in such a culturally intelligent manner. We can transfer some of these skills to the real world, to be aware and inclusive, especially when more than 65% of the Hispanics in the U.S. are of Mexican descent. Meaning that you probably have customers, employees and partners that hold Day of the Dead as a treasured family custom. Further, contrary to popular belief, Latinos relish this custom as a joyous event, rather than a melancholy and depressive occasion.
For these reasons, the Day of the Dead can be leveraged for mainstream organizations in the U.S. to engage and deepen the connection to the Latino consumer. Already, retailers like Target and Walmart have full Día de los Muertos displays. We urge you to go beyond the commercial decorations. This is a tradition that values family, our connection to our ancestors, and is a treasured custom belonging to the Mexican people in which each component has an intrinsic value. Consider incorporating Día de los Muertos components along with Halloween, not either/or, but ALSO to acknowledge this special Mexican contribution to the rich fabric of U.S. culture. This adds to being more inclusive and welcoming, especially for your employees and customers.
If celebrating at work, avoid offending anyone with empty token gestures, be mindful that this is more than a Hallmark moment. Develop commemorative signage and content to be included in your e-newsletter and social platforms; and be sure to have the content developed in English and Spanish. Please do ensure that the Spanish content is created by a professional with experience in developing creative Spanish content versus risking your brand to someone you “ think” reads and writes proper Spanish, If you have a large Hispanic employee workforce, consider hosting a lunch & learn event where your team can share their personal stories or create an altar or ofrendas together. Or invite a historian or local artist to showcase his/her work featuring Día de los Muertos to raise awareness.
At home, explore this lovely Mexican custom by watching COCO (turn on the Spanish subtitles to practice your español), gather the family and incorporate some of these traditions to celebrate your ancestors and recognize your own family’s journey by acknowledging those that came before you… Those on whose shoulders you stand today. Ahora, ¡a celebrar! (And now, we celebrate!)