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The Days of the Dead in Latin America

written by: Gustavo Lequerica-Calvo • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 4/5/2012

The Day of the Dead is known in Spanish as El Día de los Muertos. You may think this celebration only happens in Mexico, but did you know that Colombia and Nicaragua celebrate as part of their culture too?

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    El Día de los Muertos throughout Latin America

    Almost every culture has a special day of rituals to honor their dead throughout the world. It is interesting to analyze, within the sociological spectrum and the semantic components, how humanity ritualizes death and the process of healing. Humans use religious and personal rituals to mourn the lost and accept that death is not only an ending but rather a new beginning - El Dia de los Muertos or The Day of the Dead is one of these prevailing rituals in and around Latin America.

    While you may be familiar with the Mexican Day of the Dead, you probably are just learning that almost every Spanish speaking culture in the world has a Day of the Dead celebration. These ceremonies and customs are less well known, because they aren’t considered a patrimony of humanity, like the Mexican celebration.

    To think about the modern celebration of El Dia de los Muertos , we have to go back to the conquistadors who brought Christianity to the continent during the Colonization Period. To be more exact, El Dia de los Muertos has a link to the All Souls Day (a Catholic festivity). Some features of the All Souls Day can be seen in El Dia de los Muertos, such as praying to God so the souls can have a good eternal rest, or the bringing of relics that once belonged to the departed so they could “use” the favorite things they had in life.

    The traditions change from country to country, but as in many Hispanic countries, the influence of the Catholic Church is clearly seen. So, some patterns in traditions can be seen in different celebrations.

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    Variations according to the Countries

    Ecuador: In Ecuador the celebration is similar to Mexico: there are not many differences. People go to the graves of their relatives and leave local food and drinks like the Purple Colada, a beverage made of purple corn and local berries.

    A tradition that is mostly seen in the rural areas is the Piruruy, the Ecuador version of Ouija; the game is played with dice carved from llama bones and is used as a method of communication with the departed.

    Nicaragua: El Dia de los Muertos in Nicaragua is by far the most “extreme” of all the celebrations, as people go and camp in the mausoleums to be closer to their departed ones.

    Colombia: Colombia does not officially celebrate this day. Still, many people pilgrimage to the graveyards on November 1st to leave items that the dead liked in life, such as their favorite books and their favorite flowers. The approach in Colombia is more romantic and solemn than other countries because big parties like the Ecuadorian and Mexican versions are not held.

    El Salvador: In El Salvador, the day is honored on November the 2, but there are no real celebrations, like in Mexico.

    Venezuela: There are no rites or traditions in Venezuela, but some believers use the days of November 1st and 2nd to do restoration work on the graves of their relatives.

    Peru: The tradition in Peru is similar as the Colombian observance; flowers and items that the departed liked in life are left on their graves. People also gather to remember relatives and friends who passed away.

    And with this brief explanation, we end our walk through some of the countries in South and Central America that celebrate El Dia de los Muertos.

    If you want to learn more about The Day of the Dead you can buy this book; Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond at Amazon.com. It is not too expensive, and it gives a great explanation about the different ways to honor death and rebirth in Hispanic cultures as well Pre-Columbian cultures. The book can give the reader a new perspective about how different cultures deal with the process of death. Some of those cultures will mourn in silence, and others will have parties and remember their beloved ones with a celebration of their memory.