Day Of The Dead Thrives In U.S. And Mexico As more people celebrate the holiday in Mexico and the U.S., the tradition has evolved, but its spirit remains the same.
NPR logo Día De Los Muertos Comes To Life Across The Mexican Diaspora

Día De Los Muertos Comes To Life Across The Mexican Diaspora

A lavish Día de los Muertos altar is on display at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., to celebrate Day of the Dead. Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR hide caption

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Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

A lavish Día de los Muertos altar is on display at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., to celebrate Day of the Dead.

Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

Decorative sugar skulls line the front of the colorful, four-tiered altar. Cempasúchiles in bloom are scattered between painted skeletons, unlit candles and plates of food resting on pink papel picado, an intricately designed tissue paper.

Three banners hang above the display. In the center, La Catrina, the female skeletal figure that has become an icon for the occasion, is painted with a declaration: Día De Muertos. Day of the Dead.

Michelle Arguello plays with her 7-month-old daughter Maia, while her husband sets up their Day of the Dead altar in their home. This will be Maia's first Day of the Dead celebration. Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR hide caption

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Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

Michelle Arguello plays with her 7-month-old daughter Maia, while her husband sets up their Day of the Dead altar in their home. This will be Maia's first Day of the Dead celebration.

Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

Adolfo Arguello came to the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., to admire this lavish Day of the Dead altar and note the ofrendas he was missing for his altar at home. It's the first one he and his wife, who moved to D.C. about a year ago, will have in their home – and the first Day of the Dead holiday for their 7-month-old daughter, Maia.

"I want her to understand what it means to my culture," he says, looking at the grand display.

Day of the Dead is traditionally celebrated in Mexico on Nov. 1 and 2 – All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, respectively. Celebrants make ofrendas, or offerings, to the spirits of loved ones who have died and leave them at their gravesites or place them on makeshift altars at home.

Día de los Muertos has its roots in Pre-Columbian cultures and beliefs. Before the Spanish arrived in what is today Mexico, the Aztec gave offerings to their deceased ancestors as part of their death rituals. After the Spanish came, the celebration morphed to incorporate Catholic beliefs and practices, creating this deeply religious, syncretic tradition.

Adolfo Arguello places a flower on the Day of the Dead altar he made in his home to commemorate his mother-in-law, who died when his wife was 2 months old. Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR hide caption

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Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

Adolfo Arguello places a flower on the Day of the Dead altar he made in his home to commemorate his mother-in-law, who died when his wife was 2 months old.

Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

When he was young, Arguello and his family celebrated the holiday with an altar in their house in Chiapas, Mexico, and would visit his grandfather's tomb. There, they would bring him his favorite food and wine, and play his favorite music while sharing stories about their time with him. Now, Arguello wants his multicultural daughter, who was born in the U.S. to parents of Mexican and Dominican descent, to have a piece of the tradition, too.

Shaping and sharing Mexican culture

Over the last several years, a growing number of people of Mexican and other Latin American descent have celebrated Day of the Dead throughout the U.S. The Mexican diaspora to the states during the 1990s through the early 2000s largely contributed to that, says Alberto Fierro, executive director at the Mexican Cultural Institute.

Each year the institute displays an altar honoring different Mexican people. This year's altar is dedicated to a number of cultural figures who helped shape and share Mexican culture. It's also dedicated to the victims of the deadly earthquakes that rocked Mexico in September, killing hundreds.

Historically, Day of the Dead festivities were popular in indigenous areas in Mexico, but in the 1980s, the celebration spread to more urban areas of the country, Fierro says. Ofrendas became visible in places such as public buildings and museums.

In 2008, UNESCO added the "indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead" to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It was the first cultural practice from Mexico recognized.

The tradition has been largely associated with the Mexican working class, but the country's middle class has rediscovered it in recent years for two major reasons: The celebration's appearance in pop culture, and it's popularity in the U.S., says Andrew Chesnut, a professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Alberto Fierro, executive director at the Mexican Cultural Institute, points to the different elements of the institute's Day of the Dead altar. Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR hide caption

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Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

Alberto Fierro, executive director at the Mexican Cultural Institute, points to the different elements of the institute's Day of the Dead altar.

Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

"In the past they would have ignored it or derided it, now they find it cool and hip," he says.

Scenes of a Día de los Muertos parade appeared in the 2015 James Bond installment "Spectre." Apparently inspired by the film, Mexico City hosted its first Day of the Dead parade in 2016, which brought thousands of participants celebrating in the streets.

This year, Day of the Dead celebrations are taking place in major cities across the U.S., including San Antonio, Los Angeles, Chicago and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"Culture is alive"

With more people observing the holiday, sharing the tradition's history and keeping its integrity at the heart of the celebration is a continuing mission for educators.

"You see it so popularized in mainstream pop culture, the commercialization and commoditization of it – there's some danger in that," says Melissa Carrillo, the new media and technology director at the Smithsonian Latino Center. The Latino Center offers a range of community events to educate the public about the history of Day of the Dead and the importance of the ofrendas. It also tracks how people choose to practice the celebration as a way to document its evolving contemporary tradition.

Adolfo Arguello lights a candle for his mother-in-law on the altar in his home to celebrate Day of the Dead. Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR hide caption

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Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

Adolfo Arguello lights a candle for his mother-in-law on the altar in his home to celebrate Day of the Dead.

Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

The Chicano Movement in the U.S., for example, shared the tradition as a show of pride, she says. Meanwhile, in Mexico today, some use Day of the Dead to make political statements, calling out the country's high murder rate, Chesnut says.

Where and how the tradition is celebrated has changed over time, but that's part of culture, Fierro says. The theme and spirit of Día de los Muertos has remained throughout those transitions.

"Culture is alive," Fierro says. "It moves. It changes."

Isabel Dobrin is an NPR Digital News intern.