A vibrant trail marked by cempasúchil or marigold flowers leads to a stepped pyramid comprised of seven different steps. Some say such steps represent the seven levels the soul must go through to reach spiritual peace, while others think they are a depiction of the seven capital sins.
At the top of the pyramid one can spot a picture of a deceased person, along with a cross to symbolize the cardinal points. Next comes the deceased’s favorite food and fruit as well as the traditional pan the muertos, or bread of the dead. Finally, the bottom steps hold a container with salt for the purification of the souls and images of the Virgin Mary or the saints. Other key elements include candles, calaveritas or sugar skulls, incense and papel picado or decorative pieces of cut paper in all colors.
This is what the people of Mexico call altar de muertos, or Day of the Dead altar. A tradition that dates back to Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztec and the Mayan, Dia de los Muertos is a significant holiday in Mexico. It holds such a special meaning to the Mexican people that, rather than ceasing to exist with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, it only evolved to incorporate elements of the Catholic religion that are seen to this day.
Dia de los Muertos, celebrated officially on November 2, pays respect to and commemorates the life of deceased family members, friends or prominent leaders and celebrities. An important part of this tradition is the altar de muertos built with care in honor of the deceased.
Growing up in Mexico, I was fortunate to experience the richness and significance that this holiday represents to my Hispanic culture. Schoolchildren, faculty and staffs would build a colossal altar and join competitions for the most outstanding piece of art. Every child was involved, whether it was by contributing one of the above-mentioned components of an altar or helping put all the pieces together into one majestic structure.
It should come as no surprise that, as Latinos have reached over a third of the total population makeup in Austin, Dia de los Muertos has grown to become a prominent local celebration. The first major event commemorating this traditional holiday–and which remains the biggest local event of its kind–is Mexic-Arte Museum’s Viva la Vida Festival. It celebrates its 33rd anniversary in 2016. Many more events have come along through the years, including those produced by the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, Easter Seals Central Texas, Central Market, The University of Texas at Austin, Planet K, the City of Round Rock and many more.
It is celebrations like this that remind us we are all humans with a shared experience and collective heritage. No matter what culture or background each of us comes from, everyone is invited to celebrate the cycle of life as Dia de los Muertos and Halloween events take over the city in October. For up to the minute information on Austin-area Dia de los Muertos events, please go to austindaysofthedead.com.