Día de Los Muertos: The History of the Mexican Holiday and How Richmond Celebrates

by | Oct 31, 2017 | COMMUNITY

In tandem with the Halloween spirit, there are several other worldwide holidays that honor and romanticize the recently departed. One of these holidays that are gaining popularity within the United States is Day of the Dead, or Dia De Los Muertos, a celebration of the lives of lost loved ones that originates from Mexico. Family members are honored with homemade altars inside the homes of the ones they left behind who decorate these “ofrendas” with pictures, flowers, and favorite foods.

The history of Day of the Dead goes back over 3,000 years ago. It is believed that on midnight of October 31, the gates of heaven open for all the spirits of deceased children so that they can return to their families for 24 hours. And then on midnight of November 1, the spirits of adults return to enjoy the festivities their families have planned. The beautiful altars that the families make are full of marigold flowers, pictures, and several hearty foods like fruit, tortillas, celebratory breads called “pan de muerto,” hot cocoa, and water for their weary travels from heaven. Candy, treats, and toys are left for the children while shots of liquor and cigarettes are left for the adults.

Preparation for Day of the Dead is expensive and takes some families months to acquire enough financial contributions to present, often taking a whole month’s income, or more. These indigenous people believe that the satisfied spirits of their loved ones will offer the family protection and goodwill for the coming year, while the tactile process of assembling altars brings the families together. And on the final afternoon of the holiday, families take their celebrations to cemeteries where they share stories about their deceased and clean the local tombs.

Every year in Richmond, the Latin Ballet of Virginia and the Glen Allen Cultural Arts Center collaborate to facilitate a free-to-attend festival for their celebration of Dia De Los Muertos. Held at the Cultural Arts Center, the Latin Ballet, alongside Richmond Ballet Minds in Motion Ambassadors, produce dance performances to the public that share culture, history, and in-depth looks into the holiday.

Last weekend’s festival is its third year taking place at the Cultural Arts Center which included costumes, art activities, crafts made from tissue paper and marigold, live dance performances, Dia De Los Muertos temporary tattoos, and sugar skulls.

“We started celebrating Dia De Los Muertos in about 2003, and back then, it was difficult to get people out and celebrate a holiday like Dia de la Muertos,” said Ana Ines Barragan King, the Director of the Latin Ballet of Virginia. “It’s taken us fourteen years, but more and more people love it. It is a holiday that originates from Mexico over 3,000 years ago, but several countries from around the world, like India and some African countries, celebrate the holiday under a different name.”

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing

 King is from Colombia where do they not celebrate the holiday. 

“When my father watched my first festival, he was in shock,” King said. And it stems from the Catholic domination of the Aztec. Spain does not celebrate Dia De Los Muertos either. Catholics celebrate All Souls and All Saints Day during the same time, so here in the US, the holidays have combined to become the Dia De Los Muertos we know and celebrate today.”

Last week, The Latin Ballet of Virginia and Swift Creek Mill Theatre also put on several performances of Dia de los Muertos in addition to the annual festival.

King elaborated on the origins of the Aztec celebration of Day of the Dead, and it began with the observation of the monarch butterfly migration. Monarch butterflies are located all across the United States in natural habitat, but when the winter comes around, the butterflies migrate south to one location. 

“Monarch butterflies migrate from across to the US and they travel to Michoacan, Mexico in the winter,” she said. “It is said that these butterflies carry the spirits of our loved ones on their wings, and when they arrive in Michoacan, Dia De Los Muertos begins.”

The 2017 Dia De Los Muertos Fiesta held a special place for all dancers of the Latin Ballet. About two weeks ago, dancer Ivana Lo Piccolo passed away to a battle with lung cancer, and King and the Latin Ballet paid tribute to her life by creating an altar to her that was on display throughout the entirety of the festival. 

“We adorned her altar with pictures in ornate frames, marigold, and a dress of hers that I had kept for some reason.” Because of the holiday’s holistic tradition, she was able to dance with her friends again,” King said. 

If you missed out on The Latin Ballet’s Dia De Los Muertos celebration, you can celebrate with Richmond’s 12th Annual Halloween Parade presented by ALL THE SAINTS THEATER COMPANY tonight. Dress up in a costume, make your own giant puppets or flags, and head out to the corner of Main and Laurel streets at 7 pm tonight to help celebrate the times and honor the dead.

And on Nov. 1, Casa Del Barco will host their annual Day of the Dead celebration with food and drink features as well as an authentic Dia de los Muertos altar. The restaurant and tequila bar will be holding an Instagram contest running all day long for a chance to win a $50 gift card to Casa del Barco.

*Photo couresty of Latin Ballet of Virginia 

Christopher McDaniel

Christopher McDaniel

Christopher Alan McDaniel is a 2015 VCU graduate with his Bachelor’s in English and a minor in Creative Writing. Chris aspires to be a collegiate professor of writing in his future. Until then, you can find him hosting free public creative writing workshops with the Filthy Rich and writing grants for Dogtown Dance Theatre. Chris can also be found around Richmond’s breweries and music venues enjoying what the city has to offer.

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