Death celebration is alive

Halloween is here, and Sacramento’s doorsteps are crowded with little witches and goblins. Dressing up is a tradition throughout the United States, but Halloween hasn’t much significance beyond costumes and candy. Instead of Halloween, many Mexican-Americans celebrate the dead through the traditional Dias de los Muertos. This tradition originated in Mexico—practiced mainly in the states of Oaxaca and Michoacan—but it also is practiced widely in Sacramento’s Mexican-American community.

Although death is a topic largely avoided in the United States, Mexicans celebrate it with rejoicing, color and prayer. They honor death and accept it as the continuity of life. The celebration often is misinterpreted in the United States as simply another form of Halloween because of the altars, skulls and concurrent date. However, the Day of the Dead is less about fright and more about celebration than the European holiday.

Festivities begin the night of October 31 with La Noche de Duelo (the Night of Mourning). On this day, people clean and decorate gravesites with flowers, candles and food. It is believed that the spirits of angelitos (deceased children) arrive to visit their families and leave on November 1, All Saints’ Day. Right after the departure of the angelitos, the spirits of adults arrive and stay until November 2, All Souls’ Day.

These traditions are a rare mix of pre-Hispanic and Roman Catholic rituals. Mexico’s indigenous people had been practicing rituals honoring death for almost 3,000 years when the Spaniards invaded Mexico and forced Christianity on the population. The native rituals merged with Catholic theology, thus developing Los Dias de los Muertos, though the holiday’s basic principles remain indigenous.

Throughout Sacramento, the Mexican-American community will be setting out altars for the deceased and decorating them with food, flowers and photos. The displays will resonate with skulls representing death and rebirth, lit candles and marigold flowers—an explosion of color on Sacramento’s cultural and art scene.

Octavio Paz, Mexico’s Nobel laureate poet, summarized the significance of death for the Mexican people when he said, “To the resident of New York, Paris or London, the word death is never pronounced because it burns the lips. Mexicans, on the other hand, frequent it, caress it. They sleep with it. They celebrate it. It is one of their favorite games and their most permanent love.” Sacramentans of Mexican descent have introduced our city to this “permanent love.”