Elaborately decorated skull art, whispers of Papel Picado, flickering candles and the fragrant scent of Marigolds – Día de los Muertos is on the horizon and with it comes the memories of family members and friends no longer with us.

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Local artist Jeremy Montoya's work on display at a past South Broadway Cultural Center Dia de los Muertos celebration.

Día de los Muertos (Spanish for Day of the Dead) is a tradition that revolves around life and death, family and remembrance. It is been traced back to Aztec religious beliefs and the goddess Mictecacihuatl – “Lady of the Dead.” The tradition further developed along religious timelines when the Spanish introduced Roman Catholicism to Mexico, and is now celebrated across Latin America and in various ways around the world.

“This tradition originated in Mexico was and practiced among indigenous peoples. With the arrival of the Spanish the tradition blossomed into including Christian ideals in respect to the use of saints and other Christian objects,” explained Augustine Romero, Gallery Curator for the South Broadway Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

What was once a month long observance, is now an annual nightlong celebration. The basic belief is that on the night between All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2), the spirits of those departed come back to visit the living – not as ghosts, but as family and community members returning to check on their loved ones.

“Día de los Muertos is about honoring family and the deceased, keeping their memories alive,” – Augustine Romero, South Broadway Cultural Center.

Romero oversees the South Broadway Cultural Center, which puts on a Día de los Muertos art exhibition every year, showcasing local artists and their contributions to the tradition. Many of the artists create Ofrendas (offerings or alters) commemorating the deceased and showcasing their favorite foods.

“The celebration revolves around the tradition of remembrance or honoring lost love ones,” Romero said. “An important aspect of the celebration involves visits to graves sites to clean and decorate them. These customs were not meant to fear death but to embrace it as we embrace life and more importantly remembering and honoring the dead.”

Ofrendas can be made at the grave site or in homes, and are often infused with the four elements of nature: earth, wind, water and fire – a nod to traditional roots in Mexican and Indigenous history.

Delicately cut, brightly colored tissue paper that dance on the breeze, the Papel Picado reflects the movement of the wind and are said to help the spirits travel between the land of the living and world of the dead.
Containers of water represent purity and are prepared for the deceased to quench their thirst after the long journey home. Some families put out bottles of tequila, a representation of the Mexican influence on the tradition and a reminder that Día de los Muertos is a celebration.
Families often bake Pan Muerto or “bread of the dead” and leave it on the Ofrenda for the souls to enjoy. The bread is representative of the harvest and our connection to the Earth.
Candles are a common element on grave sites and alters, lit to help guide souls back home. They also represent light, hope and faith. Many will light extra candles to represent forgotten souls or people whose families are unable to celebrate them.

Above all, the photos of loved ones and foods or items they treasured are placed on the alters so that the living can continue to remember who their loved one were and what they stood for.

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Calaveras, or sugar skulls, have become a widely-recognized symbol of Día de los Muertos. Made from sugar, water and meringue, the skulls offer a sweet treat to both the living and the dead. They are elaborately decorated in vibrant colors, of the with religious symbols and Marigold flowers. The Marigolds, known as Flor de Muerto (Flower of Death) is thought to attract the souls to the offerings, while Calaveras represent deceased family members and friends who are being honored.

“The skulls are a reminder to not fear death, because in order to live one must die,” Romero explained. “It’s a part of the circle of life.”

That cycle is historically celebrated at The University of New Mexico by El Centro de la Raza. For years, El Centro has hosted a ceremony featuring an elder from the community. But, due to COVID-19 restrictions, that celebration is moving online. UNM Students, staff and faculty are invited to join an open mic night being put on by the UNM Student Organization of Latin American Studies (SOLAS). The event is being held on Zoom (Meeting ID: 929 4072 5045) on Nov. 2 at 6 p.m. The theme is “Transitional Times” and will focus on transition, transformation, tradition, memory, Día de los Muertos, the Presidential election, activism and 2020. Performers are asked to sign up by Nov. 1 (email: solas@unm.edu).

In addition, Ofrendas made by local artists will be in the gallery of the South Broadway Cultural Center. Again, due to COVID-19, the traditional gallery opening and celebration is being traded for a virtual event. View videos of the artists’ explaining their work, and the art itself, by visiting the its website. The exhibit will go live Nov. 2 at 6 p.m.

Dia de los Muertos Celebration