The Day of the Dead, Dìa de Los Muertos in Spanish, is a traditional celebration that occurs on November 1 throughout Latin America, corresponding to the Christian day of All Saints. Originally descending from the Mayan tradition of celebrating the death and the ancestors, with the arrival of the Spanish the festivity also embodied Christian elements. Although Mexico is the first country commonly associated with this festival, many Latin American countries celebrate it with peculiar rituals.
In Guatemala, the Day of the Dead represents one of the biggest and most awaited events of the year, where the mixture between the Christian framework and Mayan practices are stronger due to the presence of many indigenous communities. But how do people celebrate it?
Traditionally, this day represents a way to connect with the beloved that passed away, celebrating the cycle of life through death. In Mayan culture, the worship of death is something recurrent, especially with regards to the ancestors. Death, in fact, plays an important role both in symbology and interpretation of life, as Mayan people believe that the cosmic order is based on the balance between life and death.
For Guatemalan people, it is a very heartfelt event whose preparation begins many days before, with the traditional markets that become explosions of colours and smells.
On November 1st, families start crowding the cemetery in the early morning to clean and prepare tombs. The main ritual consists of the decoration of gravestones with wreaths of flowers (coronas) but also candles, lights, and banquets of dried and festive food. One of the most representative flowers are orange marigolds, also known as flor de muerto (flower of death), traditionally associated to this festivity.
In Guatemala, many communities celebrate the Day of the Dead through unique rituals that vary from place to place. During the preparations, people share decorations and food, making this day also an occasion to meet one another and foster the harmony within the community.
In the city of San Jose Petén, for example, the procession of Las Santas calaveras takes place at nightfall. During this event, skulls that are said to be of Mayan kings and priests are adored to receive blessings and taken from house to house, outside of which altars full of food and drinks are prepared. Then, the skulls are displayed in the church for nine days, safeguarded by the town elder.
Todos Santos Cuchumatán, in the district of Huehuetenango, is famous for a horse race named Carrera de las Cintas, in which men dressed up with traditional clothing run all day following a track. According to the tradition, they must continue the tradition and compete at least for four consecutive years.
Another unique aspect of the Guatemalan celebrations, particularly of Santiago Sacatépequez, is the kite-flying ritual or barriteles. In Santiago, preparations for the Day of the Dead usually start about forty days before. The biggest kites are prepared with a frame of bamboo poles, on which paper pieces and other decorations are fixed. People may take months to build these huge and colourful kites, which have become a popular form of art. The practice also involves the search for bamboo pieces that young unmarried men get during a long and hard journey to the coast, a sort of ritual passage to prove their strength.
Kites’ design and sizes also embodied elements belonging to the Mayan culture, similar to what we may find in the local weaving tradition, such as the symbol of the diamond. Besides the diamond shape, kites may have a circular frame with a central hole called crown or a moon shape, which is circular with some decors in the middle.
Kites may hold different significance, ranging from political to cultural topics, among which Mayan symbolism and rituality are the most appreciated and popular. The day before the flying, a public competition elects the best one.
On the Day of the Dead the ritual consists of flying them from the cemetery hills as a way for guiding the spirits to their families and establishing a symbolic connection. At the end of the celebration, all kites are burned to let the spirits rest peacefully until the following year.
Another interesting aspect of this practice is the role of women, which shows the relevance and the importance of their work, especially among indigenous communities. Not only do they create and design kites, but they are also involved in the decoration of public spaces with traditional patterns and symbols. In Guatemala, in fact, women play a fundamental role in safeguarding local traditions and ensuring the transmission of the ancient culture to young generations.
El Dìa de Los Muertos is surely a unique experience in which spirituality, folklore, and tradition meet and create a suggestive exchange both with life and death. Surely, an incredible experience that should be taken once in a lifetime!
I.W. Ochoa, 2006, El Día de los Difuntosen Santiago Sacatepéquez: barriletes para las ánimas benditas, Nahual Foundation
Day of the Dead in Guatemala, Vanderbilt Center for Latin American Studies