The Language of Our Traditions

Colorful Mexican Skulls

What do the words mezcal, pozole, copal and cempasúchil have in common? They are some of the elements–which really have no good translation– that can be found at a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Even though it has the word dead in it, this traditional day is far from being focused on sadness, being scared or suffering loss. It actually represents the opposite of that. This is a day that embodies (in bright colors) union, generosity, sharing and the joy of being with loved ones.

Cempasuchil Orange Mexican Flowers


Since its earliest celebrations, this day represents blending or mestizaje. Although it started as an indigenous festivity in pre-Hispanic Mexico, eventually it was the blending of those traditions and Spanish traditions that resulted in what we know today as the Day of the Dead. During the time of the Conquista in the sixteenth century, when the Spanish converted the people native to Mexico to Catholicism, there was a blending of beliefs about the afterlife; the days of All Saints and All Souls coincided in time with Mesoamerican traditions regarding life after death. This explains why the offering tables that are prepared on this day in Mexican households usually feature the image of a saint along with the photographs of loved ones who have passed on.

Skeletons mexican dolls


This day is not about receiving something, quite the contrary, it is a day about offering to the dearly departed what they most loved when they were alive. Did that person love mezcal, a distilled beverage made from agave; or pozole, a stew made with hominy, meat, and lettuce? Then, these specialties cannot be missing from the table of offerings made for that loved one who passed on. Other items that are typical are skulls made out of sugar to symbolize sweetness; copal, which is a traditional resin incense that with its smoke marks “roads” for the dead to follow; and cempasúchil, which is a flower that with its brightly-colored orange petals and fragrant aroma guides the spirit-footsteps of loved ones back home for a one-day visit.

Pozole mexican Soup


The items that are offered are a way of sharing with those who have passed on their favorite delicious food and drink. However, since a lot of the food items might be perishable, they remain on the table only from October 31st to November 2nd at most. Before it goes bad, the food is shared by the people of the household so that it is not wasted. This provides an opportunity to share food and stories.


The joy of being with loved ones

On the offering table for the dearly departed, the living family members place photographs and personal items so that on their transitory visit home the ancestors will feel comfortable and attracted by the terrestrial meals, drinks, and objects that they enjoyed. What is valued is the company of family, the gathering of family members to prepare the table, remembering the ancestors who will cross a bridge between that life and this one, and the joy of being together in spirit even if only for a day.

Face paint mexican day of the dead

In 2003, the UNESCO named this Mexican festivity of the Day of the Dead an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which attracted international attention and sparked curiosity. However, in order to more fully understand the specific elements, values, and history of this festivity, it is important to familiarize oneself with those untranslatable words that characterize it. Learning Spanish, in its Mexican and Spanish forms, empowers you to truly understand and dive deeply into ancient traditions shaped by mestizaje which are still celebrated today by many of the 126, 577,691 people living in Mexico as well as many of those living abroad.

By Dr. Valerie Aguilar

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