Day of the Dead

How remembering the dead brings 
Latin America together

The day of the dead on Nov. 2 is a celebration and remembrance of a person’s life, a part of nature’s cycle. For Latin Americans around the world is even more. It’s a way to honor our ancestors, it’s a party.

The origins of this celebration can be traced back to indigenous civilizations more than 3,000 years ago, such as the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas, and its development merged with Catholicism as it was imposed to the native communities and developed into All Saint’s Day.

During the pre-Hispanic era it was a common practice to keep skulls as trophies and display them during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth, and now it has transformed and acquired unique traditions all across the region.


The northern country has the largest and most diverse traditions, which differ even between different states. The main celebrations include that the relatives of the deceased visit their graves to clean them and decorate them to honor their time on Earth.

It is very common to see folk bands and Mariachis singing and dancing, at the request of the people in the cemeteries. The families usually bring flowers, food, and any object that the deceased would have like during his life, in the belief that he or she might use it in the afterlife.

In Mexico, people also organize the famous Skull Festival, which honors Jose Guadalupe Posada, who created the image of the Catrina, an emblematic skull painted with flowers and colors thathas become a unique image of the country. Images of skulls are created, painted and framed in houses across Mexico.

The skulls are also part of a literary tradition, which are poems and songs created around the topic of death, in a humorous way.

Without a doubt, the most important tradition is the colorful altar, which incorporates all the elements of this celebration including food, flowers, music and art.


The Andean country has a strong tradition of remembering their dead, rooted in their ancient wisdom as indigenous people, as well as the mixture with Spanish culture.

Bolivians honor their ancestors mainly with food and drinks, and bake a particular bread called Tantawawa, or bread of the child, which represents the person who died.

The bread is usually 50 cms long and has a human shape, and a colorful face, which is modeled after the face of the deceased.

People also baked bread with the shape of a ladder, which represents how the soul will rise to heaven.

These altars are decorated with several photographs, under the belief that the souls will descend to Earth again to spend some time with family and friends.

Some Bolivians believe the souls of those who die bring prosperity and fertility, since the holiday is celebrated on the same period as the beginning of the growing crops.


Instead of placing fresh flowers in the tombs of their friends and family, as a sign of an offering, Peruvians create colorful crowns to bring to the cemeteries.

It’s a delicate and arduous manual job, in which flowers are added to a wire base crown shape. If it’s intended for a woman, the crown will have the shape of a virgin, if it’s for a man it would have the image of a saint, and for children it will resemble an angel.

The tradition also includes altars, which are fabricated by the relatives, and usually have food and drinks, as well as other important objects from the deceased. These altars are taken to the cemetery, as the legend says the dead will come back to life and enjoy the goods brought to them.


A unique tradition takes place in Guatemala for this holiday, people build and fly colorful and giant kites, which according to their beliefs scares bad spirits. These handmade kites are taken to cemeteries and flown during festivals.

According to legends, cemeteries were filled with evil spirits which wouldn't let the souls rest and thus hunted the premises. The communities consulted with wizards and shamans who tried to scare them with magic. Since they couldn't force them lo leave, they used the wind and paper to make sound, and scare the spirits away.

Altars for the dead usually have glasses of water and a picture of them, to honor and help them in their transition to the spiritual world. People also bring to the cemeteries a typical yellow flower, which grows during this time, or paper flowers which last longer.


Mainly in the northern areas of the country, the holiday is celebrated by baking bread with the shapes of angels, crosses, doves and offered in honor of those who died, in an attempt to help them reach heaven.

For Argentines, altars are built and placed in front of black fabrics and on top thy have bright colors which represent the skies and heaven. They also include photos and personal objects that belonged to their loved ones.

They prepare alcoholic drinks with a corn or peanut base and dedicate this day to visiting cemeteries and bring flowers to their relatives. The flowers used are made of paper, and are usually purple and black if the person was an adult, or white and blue if it was a child.

The date used to be a national holiday until the military dictatorship banned it, along with other festivities such as the Carnaval.