Unseen Folklore of Dia de los Muertos – Storytelling for Everyone

By Bailey White

When I was involved in my high school’s Spanish club, our biggest event was the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Dia de los Muertos, or better known as Day of the Dead, gave us an opportunity to prepare Mexican food, decorate the school, and dress up in colorful Hispanic garb. To my unintentionally ignorant peers, Dia de los Muertos was just seen as two celebration-filled days that honor deceased family members and friends in Hispanic culture.

What my schoolmates did not know was that underneath all the celebrations and festivities that occur during Dia de los Muertos, there are several underlying messages that Latin Americans have been trying to convey for thousands of years. Through the celebration of death, Hispanics have discovered what life is really about: family, equality, and tradition.

Despite Dia de los Muertos primarily being a commemoration for deceased loved ones, the underlying folklore of the holiday cherishes diversity and unification through traditions, such as ofrendas.

In Hispanic culture, family is one of the most important and cherished aspects of life. Being from a large Hispanic family myself, I can attest to the notion that we will find any reason to commemorate a living family member or ancestor. Family is so extremely valued and honored in Latin American culture that death makes our relationships with each other even stronger.

This inseparable bond of loved ones through life and death is what spurred one of the most iconic traditions of Dia de los Muertos: ofrendas. Ofrendas are elaborate, vibrant altars that often boast large arches and offerings that honor a passing of a loved one.

The four elements of the Earth are an essential tradition of an ofrenda:

Water is served in a clay pitcher or glass to quench the spirit’s thirst from their long journey. Fire is signified by the candles that are lit. Wind is signified by papel picado (tissue paper cut-outs). The earth element is represented by food, usually pan de muerto (bread of the dead). Alongside the Earth elements, friends and family shower spirits with memorable photographs, incense, fruit, assorted flowers, and personal items. All of these offerings contribute to the overall goal of honoring loved ones and sending the simple message of: I will love you and remember you always.

This loving tradition began ages ago; it first dates back to the Mesoamerican times, when the Aztecs believed that once the physical body died, the soul would continue to live in another realm of the universe. In those days, many would use ofrendas to summon back ancestors’ souls and lead them back home. Due to colonization of what is now modern-day Mexico and the European influence on the Aztec culture, the altar’s purpose has changed radically, but the main idea has not.

Ofrendas and the celebration of Dia de los Muertos is one of the few Mesoamerican traditions that successfully slipped through the cracks of the Spaniard’s religious control of Mexico. Although the Spaniards learned to understand the tradition of the ofrendas, many cultures are still unaware of their purpose today.

In order to dig deeper into the misconceptions of ofrendas, I used qualitative research techniques to understand others’ opinions on this holiday more thoroughly.

I interviewed Mexico native and old friend, Majo Rodriguez, on how Americans view traditional ofrendas. “In modern day Mexico, ofrendas are used as a way to say ‘We miss you dearly.’ But people who do not celebrate Dia de los Muertos misread it as us trying to summon spirits and see if they will eat the food that is displayed on the altars. Many I have encountered have it all wrong.”

Despite what other cultures may think, this ancient tradition is a way to bring families closer, and honor those who have passed on. The core of the ofrenda is to remember those who are important to you, and that family is one of nature’s greatest blessings.


Source: White, Bailey, “The Unseen Folklore of Dia de los Muertos” (2018). Jessie O’Kelly Freshman Essay Award. 1. https://scholarworks.uark.edu/englfea/1

This Essay is brought to you for free and open access by the English at ScholarWorks@UARK. It has been accepted for inclusion in Jessie O’Kelly Freshman Essay Award by an authorized administrator of ScholarWorks@UARK.

Author adminPosted on November 1, 2021November 1, 2021Categories Folktales, History, Legends, Personal Story, SeasonsTags Aztec, Dia de los Muertos, hispanic, Latinx, Mexico

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