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Once Upon a Midnight Eerie: How 5 Countries Celebrate the Day of the Dead

Tattoos, t-shirts and elaborate sugar skulls have become increasingly popular in art and fashion, but do you know the cultural significance behind these intricate designs?


Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—is a holiday celebrated throughout Latin America, though it is most strongly associated with Mexico, where the tradition originated. Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Take a look at how the celebrations vary across five Latin American countries.



A classic case of Life Imitating Art, Día de los Muertos in Mexico City was inspired by Spectre - the Bond Movie that stylized the Halloween tradition in Mexico. More here. I took some pictures of the parade; “Padrísimo” (a common exclamation in Mexico for “Awesome”) does not accurately define how awe-inspiring and exciting the experience was! Humans and their pets were dressed in their favorite Halloween avatars and the mood was more celebratory than sombre to mark the "Day of the Dead".






Every year on November 2nd, a day referred to as “El Dia de los Disfuntos” (Day of the Deceased), cemeteries nationwide swell with Salvadorians paying their respects to the final resting place of their loved ones.  More pilgrimage than party, this national holiday is meant as a day of remembrance.



After being cleaned and repainted, fresh-cut flowers are laid at gravesites.  I spoke to a woman who was remembering her mother Isabel who passed in 2013 (see pictured above).  Her grandson said she was lovingly referred to as “Mama Chave”.



Families may treat their fallen loved ones with a pour of a favorite drink or solicit a song from one of several mariachi bands in the cemetery.  



Similar to El Salvador, Ecuador celebrates “El Dia de los Disfuntos” (Day of the Deceased) on November 2nd.  Many take favorite foods, drinks, and flowers to cemeteries to dine with and remember their loved ones.



Ecuadorians also celebrate by drinking colada morada and guaguas de pan, both of which originate from the burial rituals of indigenous people.

Colada morada is a thick, fruit-filled purple drink.  The dark color comes from a mixture of fruits and blue corn flour used to make it.  It can be served warm or chilled and is mixed with delicious spices that varies by region and family.  Colada morada was used during burial rites for the dead and today, the drink is only available in early November as part of the holiday celebration.



Guaguas de pan literally means “bread babies” in Quechua, the language of the indigenous people of Ecuador. Traditionally these guaguas were left at burial sites when someone died to mark the grave and to give the deceased food to eat. Today, most bread shops sell guaguas in the day leading up to el Dia de los Difuntos with designs that vary in their intricacy and flavors that range from jelly-filled sweet bread to salty cheese-filled versions.




"Dia dos Finados," or Day of the Dead in Brazil happens on November 2nd too and even though it is not widely celebrated as in Mexico with parades and all, people do visit their loved ones in the cemetery and decorate their graves with flowers, balloons and sometimes they even play music and spend the day with them. Others who don’t visit the cemetery might stay at home and cook their late ones’ favorite dishes and remember them with joy and nostalgia.


This picture was taken during a cemetery visit in Curitiba, Brazil, while people were paying their respects to the remains of one of their relatives. You can see some people who had their faces painted with white paint who were members of a support/prayer group and they were offering some words of wisdom and prayers to the souls of the dead. Notice the breads and glasses of water at the bottom right of the picture. Left for the dead souls when they get hungry.






The majority of Brazilians are catholics and have strong faith. They always greet you goodbye with their favorite line: “Fique com Deus,” meaning “Stay with God.”

These flowers were left at one of the graveyards and they had a tag with this message: “A sua esperança não morreu. Está em Jesus Cristo. Ele está vivo e você pode viver com ele,” meaning, “Your hope didn’t die. It is with Jesus Christ. He is alive and you can live with him.”



While not as largely celebrated as some of it’s neighboring countries, Costa Rica still observes Dia de Todos Santos (All Saints Day), as it is more commonly known here, to honor the deceased. Every year, Ticos, as Costa Ricans like to refer to themselves, across the country visit the cemeteries where their loved ones rest to pay their respects, adorning their grave sites with flowers, candles and other keepsakes.




Did you celebrate Day of the Dead this year? Do you plan to in the future?

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