Maria Garza lost both parents when she was very young, but they are never far from her memory. This time of year is particularly ripe for reminiscing about her mother and father as she celebrates Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Families come together during Dia de los Muertos to remember the lives of loved ones who have died. The cultural holiday, which originated in Mexico, is celebrated in a variety of ways, from community gatherings and setting up altars to creating art and visiting gravesites.
“I can no longer see them [or] touch them, but in that day, and that day only, in my culture, we believe that those very special people come to meet with us,” said Garza, a Navy Reservist.
The holiday originated thousands of years ago and mixes indigenous Aztec rituals with Catholicism. It’s celebrated in conjunction with All Saints Day, a holy day of the Catholic Church.
Garza grew up in Mexico, where the holiday is celebrated at the end of October and start of November. She recalls watching her mom lighting candles around an altar made to honor her grandparents. Surrounding the altar were a variety of colorful flowers, candles, food, beverages, crucifixes and images of saints.
“The [belief] is that they will come and visit the living for that day, so the living will have to call them, invite them to our house by putting up their pictures, or something that belongs to them, along with their favorite food and drinks,” Garza said.
Now Garza lives in Texas, where she passes down the tradition to her own children. During this time of year she shares stories about her parents and lights candles.
“I explain to them our cultural meaning, in hopes that they pass down what they know to future generations,” Garza said.
Janet Ramirez-Beseril lost her uncle in 1996, and her family started celebrating Dia de los Muertos in his honor.
“We had a bond like no other,” Ramirez-Beseril said. “He was the kind of man that would give you his last dollar if you needed.”
Ramirez-Beseril and her family meet at the cemetery where her uncle is buried in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos. They clean his grave and bring out his favorite snacks and beer. The family gathers to have dinner or lunch and even listen to the mariachis play festive music.
“He loved a good party,” Ramirez-Beseril said. “We turned these sad days into reminiscing all the good times.”
Last year, Ramirez-Beseril watched as her youngest daughter participated in a community Dia de los Muertos festival in Corpus Christi, Texas, where she is a guitarist for a local band. The band members painted their faces with skull designs and dressed up in bright festive colors.
The most significant symbol during Dia de los Muertos is the calaveras, or skulls. The design shows up on dolls, masks, candied sugar skulls and in face painting.
Face painting is a way to artistically express and honor loved ones who have passed. Clarissa Serna lost her grandmother, whose passion was gardening. She uses face painting as a way to remember her relative by incorporating bright colors and flowers in her skull design.
“To me it visually signifies a ‘life after death’ imagery with all the people walking around looking like skeletons,” said Serna, a singer and makeup artist in Texas.
For the past several years, Serna has seen an increase in people participating in the tradition and asking for the skull face painting.
“The makeup is becoming more and more colorful and ‘flashy’ with the use of gemstones and glitter.”
Face painting has become somewhat of a trend on social media. Makeup tutorials are posted on YouTube for the inexperienced to learn how to create their own designs. Men and women alike participate in face painting, but Serna sees more women asking for bright colors.
“Men usually get simple black and white with mustaches and crosses or more of a scary look,” she said.
Dia de los Muertos allows for individuals to celebrate in their own way, but they are united by a common factor, each honoring those who have passed away.