Learn Spanish with skulls and skeletons: Day of the Dead

21 Oct
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Learn Spanish with skulls and skeletons: Day of the Death

Monday October 21, 2019 - Posted by admin

Learn Spanish in Latin America in October and November is a unique experience you will not easily forget. You will live and experience one of the most important cultural events of the Latin American culture: el Día de los Muertos. Especially in Mexico but also in Guatemala and Peru, the streets will be full of magic and images of smiling ‘skulls’. The locals will prepare lovely food and music and take it to the cemeteries.

Dia de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is a two-day holiday that occurs November 1st and 2nd. It is celebrated across Latin America but originated in Mexico. Therefore it is most strongly associated in the Mexican culture. For many Latinos this sacred time is when the borders between the spiritual and the real world disappear, bringing together the two communities for a short period to enjoy each other’s company. For a few cherished moments, the dead and the living are close enough to touch.

Learn Spanish with skulls and skeletons: Day of the Death


Calaveras or Calacas (typical Mexican expression for skulls or skeletons) are ever-present symbols during the celebrations of the dead. Calaveras and calacas are always portrayed as ecstatic, happy, and you will see them anywhere around you, especially in Mexico. Catrinas are also very popular. Catrinas are classy skeletal women. The purpose of Catrinas is to bring an elegant dimension to Dia de Los Muertos.
All these characters reflect the general attitude Latinos have toward death during this time: a natural part of the human experience and something to reflect on with celebration; a view that is unique and usually counter-cultural in many western traditions.

How to celebrate

In cemeteries, adult graves are decorated with orange marigolds and children’s graves with white orchids. People typically leave ofrendas, or things that their loved ones enjoyed during their life on earth. Altars are  created with photographs of loved ones.

Latinamericans believe that the spirits of the children arrive first before the adults because the children are quicker on their feet. The first day, November 1st, is thus called Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the little angels). The adults arrive the next day. Musicians play as relatives place some of these favourite things for the deceased to enjoy in their journey.

Did you know that the famous Disney film Coco was inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday? Coco is about the 12-year-old boy Miguel who is accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead, where he seeks the help of his deceased musician great-great-grandfather to return him to his family among the living.

Learn Spanish with skulls and skeletons: Day of the Dead.

What are the best places to celebrate the Day of the Dead? If you don’t want to miss out on this experience and you want to experience the rich and joyful Día de los Muertos celebrations during your Spanish classes, these are the best places to celebrate the Day of the Death in Latin America.

Study Spanish in Mexico: Day of the Death

  • 1) Oaxaca, Mexico:

    The city of Oaxaca in Mexico arguably has the richest traditions regarding Day of the Dead. Over 500 towns in the region celebrate it. Oaxaca holds astonishing markets that sell merry items that Mexicans buy to decorate the graves of their loved ones. There are even competitions in schools for homemade altars. Additionally, the city of Oaxaca is decorated elaborately—including sand tapestries. Of course, the school in Oaxaca will organise different activities related to the Día de los Muertos!

  • 2) Island of Janitizio, Mexico

    In Western Mexico, we recommend Island of Janitizio, also known as the butterfly island, due to fisherman using traditional butterfly nets to use for fishing. Isla Janitizio is the main island of Lake Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán, and it is famous for it’s Day of the Dead celebrations (but well worth a visit throughout the year).
    The locals approach Day of the Dead most closely to that of their ancestors.
    This island is the only place where the “Night of the Dead”, November 1st, is celebrated with all-night candlelight vigils and celebrations. As part of this festivity, candle-lit boat processions make their way to Janitzio Island where revellers visit the church and graveyard. Visitors remain there for the night participating in a large festive vigil.

  • 3) Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango, Guatemala

    A 30-minute drive from the capital of Guatemala resides the highlands, where Dia de los Muertos is celebrated. They host a famous kite festival every year during this time. People compete to see who has the best flag, as well as a form of honouring the dead. This is especially remarkable because people spend all year crafting their kite. The kites are enormous (many 40 feet, 12 meters) and when thousands flood the sky across the country, it is quite a sight to witness.
    As in many Latin American countries, visiting the graves of loved ones is another non-negotiable tradition during the holiday. For Guatemalans, the celebrating lasts all night. When at last it is time to return to their houses, Guatemalans take careful precaution: the belief remains that spirits of the dead come in the form of moths. If a moth should happen to perish in a glass of water or a burning candle, the legend says that the spirit will be unable to return the following year.

  • 4) Cusco, Peru

    Although celebrating Dia de los Muertos is more commonly associated with Mexico, Cusco so throws their own Cusqueñean celebration! On November 1st, parades of Catholic saints and virgins proceed through the streets of Cusco. On November 2nd, families go to visit the graves of their loved ones. If you are invited to participate while learning Spanish in Peru, for example, with your guest family, bring a few coins to purchase a chicha, the local corn beer, to participate in the toasts.
    Cemeterio de Almudena is the largest ossuary in Cusco. It covers over 7 acres of land and embeds over 23,000 deceased persons. Made in 1845 from the debris of the St. Augustine church which was destroyed in Peru’s Independence war against Spain.
    There is a Peruvian legend that says if it rains November 2nd, then the deceased have returned with tears because their loved ones have not remembered them. If the day is sunny, then the deceased have returned with happiness.

Study Spanish in Cusco: Day of the Death

Is Day of the Dead the Latin American Halloween?

The Day of the Dead is often confused as a Latin American version of Halloween. But no, it’s certainly not the same. On the contrary, Day of the Dead has roots in ancient civilizations as well as early civilizations in Europe that give it a vastly different identity than Halloween. Although Halloween and Day of the Dead have some similarities, their purpose and history differ greatly. Day of the Dead being an important day for many Latin Americans to honour and celebrate those who have passed. Countries across Latin America have their own versions, traditions, and beliefs but the main purpose of Day of the Dead remains the same: to visit ones relative’s graves, honour them, and celebrate the life that was had and the life that is to come. Read more about Festivals in Latin America here.

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Learn more: the Origins of Dia de los Muertos
Dia de los Muertos is a combination of Catholic belief and Aztec tradition. The holiday began over 3,000 years ago. In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, The Aztecs had unique beliefs about the dead and how to glorify them.
Once a person died, they travelled through what is known as Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. There the dead person went through numerous challenges (9 to be exact) that took years to complete. Once they successfully completed them, they reached Mictlán, a final resting place.
The Nahua peoples typically honoured the dead in August. They brought food and other gifts for their loved ones. This tradition inspires the current day festivities.
Catholicism also influenced the modern celebration of the Day of the Dead. Catholicism observes All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls day on November 2nd. In ancient Rome, pagan religions celebrated the dead during the fall with dancing and bonfires. Later, after the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church also unofficially adopted these celebrations.
In medieval Spain, families visited the graves of their loved ones with flowers and candles (candles, in order to light the way for the dead to return to their earthly homes). In the 16th century, with the conquest of the New World, the Spanish brought these traditions and thus mixed with the traditions of the Indigenous people.

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