Day of the Dead (Mexican tradition)

El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated on November 2nd in many countries of Catholic tradition as a day to pay respects to the families’ dead. In Mexico, the colorful and lively traditions of Day of the Dead are particularly elaborate and widespread.3 Families celebrate both intimately at home and also at cemeteries where relatives believe they are joined by their dead relatives’ souls with merriment, joyful eating and drinking. Although nominally Catholic, Mexican Day of the Dead traditions reflect a strong pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican cultural influence in many regions of the country.4 (See, for example, the section on Juan Carlos Martin Trejo about Hñahñu, or Otomí, Day of the Dead traditions).

HoLa Hora Latina celebrated the Day of the Dead in 2010 for the first time. In 2011, Hola’s Day of the Dead celebration included the first concurso de altares, or altar contest. In many parts of Mexico, families construct elaborate altars, also called ofrendas, inside of their homes to honor and welcome their departed relatives, who are believed to return to visit the living on November 1 and 2. The concurso de altares attracted four participants from Zacatecas/Aguascalientes, Hidalgo, Mexico City, and the Catholic Dioceses of Knoxville, to display their elaborately decorated altars at CASA HOLA, HoLa's headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee (see video.) The ornate, colorful altares, smelling of sweet bread and marigold—a flower whose scent is thought to attract the dead—reflected the rich regional diversity and variation of this tradition. Two artistic depictions of La Catrina—a mural by Juan Carlos Martin Trejo and a 7-foot cardboard sculpture by Hector Saldivar—also graced the walls. La Catrina, a skeletal image of an elegant, wealthy woman portraying Death, was originated by nineteenth century popular graphic artist José Guadalupe Posada and has since become a traditional iconic figure in Mexican Day of the Dead observances.

Approximately 500 visitors chose the winning altar and participated in various cultural activities. The Recendez’ family altar in honor of Emiliano Zapata was the winner (see Recendez’ section for more information.) Second place was awarded to the sculpture of La Catrina (see Hector Saldivar's section.) Other activities during the event included sugar skull decorating, eating sweet pan de muertos, and decorating a Tree of Life in remembrance of loved ones who are deceased.

Watch Video 24: Day of the Dead Altar Contest at Casa HoLa, November 2011. Video by RC. Popular song La Llorona. Edited by Edy Recendez.


Photo 11: Visitors ask questions about altar at Casa HoLa, November 4, 2011, HoLa’s first altar contest. Photo by Rafael Casco.


Photo 12: Detail of altar, showing hand-embroidered napkin, dressed skeleton figures, etc. Photo by Coral Getino.


Photo 13: Altar explaining origin of Day of Dead celebration. Photo by Rafael Casco.


Photo 14: Detail of altar, showing Mexican sweets, nuts, crafts, and sweet bread. Photo by Coral Getino.


Photo 15: Mexico City-style altar, La Catrina sculpture by Hector Saldivar, and La Catrina mural by Juan Carlos Martin Trejo. Photo by Rafael Casco.


Photo 16: Juan Carlos Martin Trejo by his altar for his grandmother. Photo by Rafael Casco.


Photo 17: Detail of pan de muerto and Mexican cookies. Photo by Rafael Casco.


Photo 18: Girl hangs name on Tree of Life in remembrance of a deceased family member. Photo by Coral Getino.


Photo 19: Detail of altar, showing sugar skull, candles, fruit. Photo by Coral Getino.


Photo 20: Detail of altar, showing traditional tiers, dedication to Frida Kahlo. Photo by Coral Getino.


Photo 21: Altar Contest winning altar, by the Recendez family, in honor of Emiliano Zapata. Photo by Coral Getino.


Photo 22: Visitors learn about Day of the Dead celebrations. Photo by Coral Getino.


Photo 23: Children decorate sugar skulls. Photo by Coral Getino.

3 Greenleigh, John. The days of the dead: Mexico’s Festival of Communion with the Departed. San Francisco, CA: Collins Publishers San Francisco, 1991


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