El Dia de los Muertos
An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

The Prehispanic Festival of the Dead Defies Cultural Invasions of Mexico
By Mark D. Lacy

On his way to one of history's most dramatic confrontations -- the meeting of Hernan Cortés and Moctezuma, and the eventual defeat of the Aztecs -- Cortés left the Cholulans with scores of dead to remember. The Spanish conquistador ambushed and killed 6,000 Indians living in the important cultural center, at the base of the largest pyramid in the world.(1) The pyramid was homage to Quetzalcóatl, an important god to many of the nations of southern Mexico. Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent, was expected to return in the same year and same fashion as Cortés, who arrived from over the ocean to the east, where Quetzalcóatl once retreated in exile. The Spaniard's swift and decisive defeat of the Cholulans secured his status as a god,(2) and as he vowed to replace the Indians' great monuments with Christian temples, he commanded the people to turn to Christianity.

El Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead Home
Mingling with the Dead
Traditions of the Past
Sugar Skulls and Flowers
Dia de los Muertos Altars
Pan de Muertos
Index of Interviews
Cortés landed in 1519, on Good Friday, and the Aztecs succumbed two years later in August, the very month of their annual celebration of the dead.(3) Following tumultuous battles for Tenochtitlán, the victorious Spain, and the Catholic Church, would rule Mexico's defeated nations for three centuries. Franciscan friars arrived from Spain in 1524, as zealous conquistadors set out to extend the divine influence of Spain throughout the Americas.

Cultural Invasion of the Spanish

While wandering in the company of vast processions of Indians across the north, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca stumbled upon a slave raiding party under the notorious Diego de Alcaraz.(4) As the Indians fled the brutality and indiscriminate killing of the slave raiders, they left a scorched and barren land, unsustainable to further exploration. Cabeza de Vaca told the Spanish governor at Culiacán, "Clearly, to bring all these people to Christianity and subjection to Your Imperial Majesty, they must be won by kindness, the only certain way."

In the good graces of many indigenous people of northern Mexico, Cabeza de Vaca proposed conversion to Catholicism as a solution to escape living in fear. "We ordered them to come down from the mountains fearlessly and peacefully, reinhabit the country and rebuild their houses and, among the latter, they should build one for God with a cross placed over the door... and that, when Christians came among them, they should go to greet them with crosses in their hands..., take them to their houses and feed them, and the Christians would not harm them but be friends." FULL QUOTE

The Indians, not adverse to giving and sharing, often accepted such terms to stave off further violence.

Indigenous Traditions Grew Out of Decimation

Churches were built across the land and stone altars to nature's gods dismantled. In cases where the Indian temples were too large to destroy, crosses were placed on some and churches on others, like the church Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, erected high atop the great pyramid at Cholula.

It may have been quite profound that mighty gods like Huitzilopochtli,(5) the Aztec god of war who protected the nation from final destruction in the age of the fifth sun, didn't strike back ferociously at the Spanish. But many indigenous beliefs, however suppressed by the church, survived precariously like crops rooted on rocky slopes, much like the Indians themselves. Traditional homages and rituals, like El Día de los Muertos, grew slowly and incessantly through cracks in the foundation of the church. Vestiges of the ancient practice of remembering the dead are found in pre-Columbian settlements, like calacas adorning Mixtec vases from Zaachila in the state of Oaxaca, where people most ardently celebrate the dead today. The calacas, skeleton forms and images, are still one of the most important symbols of homage in the celebration of El Día de los Muertos.

The church rarely impressed the Indians sufficiently to make them abandon centuries-old practices it denounced as primitive and heathen idolatry. It did, however, succeed in confining the celebration of the dead to November 1 and 2, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Just as in Old Europe, believers prepared for days, or even weeks, for the return of the dead(6).

From Great Cities to the Spanish Frontier

Calaveras and calacas, skeletal figures personifying death, were found throughout the developed civilizations of the Americas, particularly the southern Mexican states, predating the arrival of the Spanish. The beloved representations continued to be produced in the most heavily colonized regions, including Spain's northern reaches, the Rio Grande del Norte, where a calavera is today said to "symbolize the triumph of Christ over death."(7)

Following the War for Independence, with the Spanish expelled from Mexico in 1821, ordinary Mexicans, most with the blood and sentiment of their indigenous ancestors, were free of the refined order of the church and left to revitalize their beliefs and realign the significance of their traditions in their own context. Like the santeros who equipped the church with images to worship much in their own visions, regular citizens paid tribute to the souls of loved ones, and sometimes heroes, much as they saw fit, and they borrowed freely from their neighbors and the artists of the people.(8) Traditions of El Día de los Muertos spread ever wider throughout the land, and continue to do so today into the United States.

Cultural Invasion of the Americans

A different kind of force invaded Mexico in the 1970s, as interest in television and access to it grew. In 1985, Mexico contracted with NASA to launch the television satellite, Morelos 1, into the heavens, bringing a cultural invasion as intense and more rapid than the Spanish Conquest. One with good humor could even say that this was more divine than Cortés.

With growing interest in all things American, including images of Halloween, Trick-or-Treating, once reserved for international bridges along the Texas-Mexico border, spread to the streets of San Miguel de Allende, the suburbs of Mexico City, the central plaza in Puebla, and even Oaxaca.

In Mexico, there is always a counter-revolution to any infestation of imperial ideas, however slowly it may develop. With the pervasiveness of American mass culture on the airwaves, the renewed pride in local culture is seen particularly in El Día de los Muertos, as altars are displayed in public places, civic buildings, libraries, and even in the heart of the beast -- McDonald's and Wal-mart. The ofrenda, the altar traditionally built in the home to honor loved ones and children, los angelitos, who are deceased but never forgotten, has gone public to challenge its commercial rival, Halloween.(9)

Much like El Día de los Muertos, Halloween was developed by prehistoric cultures -- Druids, Romans, and Celtics -- to live harmoniously in the cycle of the seasons, the harvest, and most importantly, the continuous circle of life. Mexicans understand El Dia de los Muertos in much the same light-hearted context that many Americans understand Halloween. The church has tried to conform both to a more sanitary and acceptable Christian practice, with little success over the centuries. But the people of Mexico have not yet come to terms with the commercial aggressiveness of the dead; they still like to laugh in the faces of those who would try to take their bank accounts to the grave.

Read more about Sugar Skulls and Flowers for the Dead.

Copyright 2003, by Mark Lacy and Houston Institute for Culture.

1. Established about the same time as Teotihuacan, long before the Aztec center at Tenochtitlán, Cholula was a populated civic and religious center that remained somewhat independent of the Aztecs, though the Aztecs maintained a stronghold south of the city. Some accounts indicate 3,000 were killed, while others say 6,000 were killed in the five hour battle.

2. Moctezuma is believed to have feared Cortés was Quetzalcóatl. The year 1521 was one possible window for the feathered serpent's return. Cortés' motives for the surprise attack on Cholula -- to affirm his status as one to be feared in Moctezuma's mind, or to weaken the Aztecs and their allies -- remain a great subject of speculation. Cortés was allied with coastal Indians who despised the Aztecs' domination. They may have convinced Cortés that the Cholulans were a threat in the campaign against the Aztecs. On the other hand, Cortés may have drawn his Indian allies into the war with the Aztecs by striking first, leaving them no choice but to stay with Cortés through to the defeat of the Aztecs, or suffer the wrath of the Aztec empire upon Cortés' departure from Mexico. Cortés' merciless attack on the people of Cholula is thought to have created confusion in the minds of his opponents. Some may have believed his willingness to take so many lives confirmed he was Quetzalcóatl; others believed Quetzalcóatl stood in opposition to sacrifice, but that the attack proved his power. Either way, the defeat gained Cortés and the Spaniards entry into the great city of Tenochtitlán, as Moctezuma could not risk angering a powerful and vengeful god.

3. The Aztec festival of the dead usually took place in August on the Gregorian calendar. Miccailhuitontli honored deceased children and Miccailuitl honored deceased adults.

4. Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions discovered indigenous people of western Mexico abandoning their farmland and hiding in the mountainous terrain of the Sierra Madre to escape Diego de Alcaraz. Even today, legends among indigenous groups, like the Tarahumara, tell of relocating to the treacherous canyonlands to escape the brutality of the Spanish conquistadors.

5. Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and keeper of the sun, was considered a rival of Quetzalcóatl, whose legend derived from the Toltecs before the formation of the Aztec empire. The two may have represented rival belief systems within the prehispanic cultures of southern Mexico.

6. The Mexican tradition of El Día de los Muertos requires days of preparation to welcome the spirits of deceased loved ones on November 2. There are additional days for receiving those who have died in other circumstances, such as November 1, the day to remember children, sometimes referred to as El Día de los Angelitos. Whereas, most traditions historically associated with Halloween -- carving faces in potatoes, rutabagas and turnips, and later pumpkins in North America -- were meant to keep the dead away as winter approached.

7. A good example of Christian influence in the ancient tradition of personifying death in a skeletal form is found in the exhibit "Familia y Fe" at the Museum of International Folk Art (Museum of New Mexico), in Santa Fe.

8. The print images of José Guadalupe Posada are found in many Day of the Dead ofrendas. The images, depicting willful oppressors and unwitting oppressor socialites, are often cut into paper (papel picado) and displayed above the altar. Images appropriated from the mural paintings of Diego Rivera are sometimes found in the altars. And, Frida Kahlo is often the subject of modern public altars. While her paintings often dealt with death more seriously than typical Day of the Dead images, altars dedicated to Frida Kahlo often reflect respect, admiration and sympathy for the troubled painter and wife of Rivera.

9. The objects and symbols used in the rememberance of loved ones during the Day of the Dead are usually hand made and sold in local markets by individual vendors. The items are typically made of natural products, compared with Halloween, an event Americans prepare for by purchasing mass-produced plastic Jack-o-Lanterns and plastic caricatures of ghosts and witches for house decorations. The tradition of hand carving frightening faces in pumpkins and illuminating them with candles on the nights leading up to "All Hallows' Eve" is vanishing.

Full Quote:

...that if they would like to be Christians and serve God as we required, the Christians would accept them as brothers and treat them kindly--we would command them to take no offense and take no territory from them but be their true friends. If the Indians chose otherwise, the Christians would treat them hard and carry them away to strange lands as slaves.
     The caciques answered through the interpreter that they would be faithful Christians and serve God. Asked whom they sacrificed to, worshiped, and entreated for rain and health, they replied: a man in Heaven. We asked his name. Aguar. They said they believed he created the whole world and everything in it. How did they know this? Their fathers and grandfathers had told them; it had been passed down from a distant time; the old men knew that Aguar sent rain and all good things.
     We told them we called this deity they spoke of, Dios, and if they would call Him this and worship Him as we specified, it would go well with them. They replied they understood well and would do as we said. We ordered them to come down from the mountains fearlessly and peacefully, reinhabit the country and rebuild their houses and, among the latter, they should build one for God with a cross placed over the door like the one we had in the room and that, when Christians came among them, they should go to greet them with crosses in their hands instead of bows or other weapons, take them to their houses and feed them, and the Christians would not harm them but be friends. The Indians told us they would comply.
--Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (translated by Cyclone Covey, "Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America")