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El Día de los Muertos

November 2, 2012

The first two days of November mark El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican cultural tradition and national holiday that is also celebrated by Latinos and, increasingly, non-Latinos across Texas and the United States. In honor of this holiday, we’re highlighting a selection of photographs of people cleaning and decorating family grave sites, an important traditional component of El Día de los Muertos. A small number of pictures appear to show flower and food vendors, who were probably located near the cemetery. Most, and possibly all, of the photographs were taken by Dick McConnaughey. His San Antonio address, stamped on the back of the photographs, allowed us to date them to around 1951, the year McConnaughey was listed at that location in the city directory. Preliminary research indicates that the pictures were taken at San Antonio’s San Fernando Cemetery #2.

Helpful guidelines for El Dia de los Muertos written by an unknown author, contained with the library's vertical files.

Helpful guidelines for El Dia de los Muertos written by an unknown author, contained with the library’s vertical files.

As celebrated today, El Día de los Muertos combines elements of the pre-Hispanic religious beliefs and practices of Mesoamerican Indians with the Catholic holy feast days of All Saints (the November 1st commemorative festival of all Christian saints and martyrs known or unknown) and All Souls (the November 2 liturgical day commemorating all the faithful departed). El Día de los Muertos pays tribute to those who have passed and is a celebration that invites the deceased to join the living in a festival of eating, drinking, and rejoicing. Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer write in The Skeleton at the Feast that the holiday “is a time of family reunion not only for the living but also the dead who, for a few brief hours each year, return to be with their relatives in this world” (14).

Several sources at the DRT Library describe family altars as being at the center of El Día de los Muertos, serving as “thresholds between heaven and earth” and “sites for encounters with the dead.” According to a 1994 Texas Highways article, “altars to loved ones and religious icons are common elements in many Hispanic Catholic homes, but near El Día de los Muertos, families often expand the altar to incorporate an ofrenda,” or offering (43). While the ofrendas placed at graves or added to household altars vary between regions and individuals, several items are considered essential, including candles and yellow marigolds to help draw the spirits home. Delicacies such as mole sauce, tamales, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and sugar skulls are also usually part of the ofrenda.

Sister Rosa Maria Icaza, a professor of Hispanic culture at San Antonio’s Mexican American Cultural Center, observed in the 1994 Texas Highways article that “Halloween tends to be more of a joke. Halloween celebrations, which focus on costumes, masks, and masquerading as other people, remove the reality of death happening to us personally. The Day of the Dead is playful, but it still reminds us of the people who have died and acknowledges that we will join them” (45).

References and Further Reading

The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer

El Día de los Muertos vertical files, Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library

“Día de los Muertos” by Christian Clarke Cásarez, University of Texas at Austin feature story

Click here for a full citation of the documents and images included in this entry.

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