Beyond Coco: Understanding Dia de los Muertos

Photo by Sam Brand on Unsplash

When I walk into Regina Gomez's home, I'm out of breath. Evidentially the trunk carrying my equipment was heavier than I thought (or I'm just more out of shape than I expected).

She hands me a bottle of water and tells me water is actually part of the traditions on Dia de los Muertos - the deceased will need it after their long journey. I'm touched by her gesture and eager to learn more about Dia de los Muertos.

You could attribute my curiosity to a few different things, I've never been much for the scary nature of Halloween. But, I was also captivated by the Disney film Coco and wanted to understand more about this beautiful, family oriented holiday.

Gomez has celebrated Dia de los Muertos for as long as she can remember. A native of Mexico, Gomez tells me she participated in the traditions of going to her family's grave sites, cleaning off the headstones and spending an evening sharing stories about her loved ones.

"As I grew up as a child, it was...very important," Gomez said. "It was something that we celebrated because it's not a day to be sad, but it's be happy, celebrate the life of our loved ones. It was like [the] most important celebration for the family to gather together. Be there, go to the grave, do a prayer, bring food, tequila, water for the long journey for the souls that are coming home."

For Brenda Montoto, observing Dia de los Muertos is a recent decision. After her brother passed away, Montoto said she wanted to do something to feel a closeness to her departed family members. Montoto said she remembers her mother telling her about the holiday and its significance in Mexico.

"I remember that I asked my mother, you know, do they celebrate Halloween in Mexico," Monoto said. "She goes, 'Oh, no...but we have something we call Dia de los Muertos...then she went on to explain exactly what they did."

In Mexico, families observe Dia de los Muertos by attending the grave sites of their family members (think Memorial Day in the United States), but they bring along candles, Marigold flowers, food, drink and of course, plenty of stories about their loved ones. Gomez explained the smell of the flowers and the light of the candles guide the way of the dead from the afterlife back to their families waiting at the grave site.

But, not everyone can visit their family grave sites, especially if family members have moved away from where their families are buried. Such is the case for both Montoto, who's family members are buried in Wisconsin while she resides in Texas, and Gomez, who now lives in the United States but has loved ones buried in Mexico.

Gomez is a native of Mexico and says she participated in the traditions of Dia de los Muertos while living there. Now, in the United States, she observes the holiday from her home using the traditional alter

"Not being able to go to my family's grave or my parents, my grandfather, my grandmother, I can't do that anymore," Gomez said. "So, that was like a tradition. Every year we will gather together. My uncles, my aunts, cousins, my parents, my siblings and go take flowers to the grave, do a prayer, gather together. So, that's something that I miss, because I don't have it here."

But, both Montoto and Gomez still observe Dia de los Muertos using an in-home alter, called an ofrenda.

"I just put up all the pictures of those who have gone and I put up things that I know that remind me of them," Monoto said. "Like in my alter, my brother Ronnie was an avid fishermen, so I put one of his lures that he has that he used to fish with. I put that up and then...he was a Packer fan. So, I put up beads from that on his picture. I have a brother who was an athlete, and he played football. So, I have one of his medals that I put up and, and then just pictures of my dad and my mom, and my in-laws that I have up there. I have two little baby angels on my brother John's son who passed away at birth, and then I have another one, my son's little boy who was stillborn. So, I put little cars and I put a little ducky that just represents that they were children."

Stories are also important for Dia de los Muertos. When families gather, they share memories and stories about the people they are remembering. Gomez says she loves sharing stories about her grandfather who holds a big place in her heart.

"It means a lot to me because I want to remember how he was," Gomez said. "So, when I go and share my story with other people or when people come and share their story, sometimes tears come out. But, also I've believe that that's how people feel like they feel closer to their loved ones by sharing their stories. Just to keep the memory alive of who that person was."

Listen to Montoto and Gomez share a favorite story about their loved ones:

Both women expressed a desire for their children to continue the traditions of Dia de los Muertos even after they are gone.

"Sharing it with my son because I think he is old enough now that he will remember Dia de los Muertos," Gomez said. "I have done it before like a small altar...put the picture up, but I don't think he really knows the meaning of it. So, I do want to teach him, show him and have that experience because I want him to pass that to his kids when he grows up so he can keep on going from one generation to another."

As I leave Gomez's home, I can't help but feel an instant love for Dia de los Muertos. There is something truly special about a holiday that's filled with joy and celebration of life and allows us to miss, cherish and honor our dearly departed.

But, I'm not from Mexico and I'm not Catholic (both of which are rooted in the traditions of Dia de los Muertos). So, I asked Montoto if she thought anyone could celebrate the holiday.

"Oh yes! I think it's growing more here in the United States because it's getting a lot of publicity," Montoto said. "Just in the stores you see a lot more of Dia de los Muertos. I probably wouldn't have all the things that I have to display if it weren't that it's now catching on and people are starting to celebrate it more, and I think the fact that it's not a scary type of thing. It's something to celebrate family and those who have passed."

Gomez agreed when I asked her, too.

"It can be done at the home or sometimes they do it at the grave," Gomez said. "Just taking some flowers, just taking all the items that belong to that person that have passed and just do like a prayer...there's a lot of information also online nowadays. So, a lot of people can go and search for Dia de los Muertos."


© 2020 by Root Story Studios.

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Sydney Decker

Georgetown, Texas


Tel: (512) 686 - 6945