Not just Halloween: exploring the magic of El Día de Los Muertos

“The Day of the Dead, or El Día de Los Muertos, is one of my favorite holidays that reminds me of home. This is a holiday when we remember our loved ones that have passed on, and also celebrate their lives,” said Leticia Fraga, a Princeton local who remains committed to exploring, celebrating and sharing Mexican folklore as a proud Mexican-American.

El Día de Los Muertos is a Mexican holiday dating back thousands of years to an Aztec festival. Its purpose remains true to Mexicans throughout the world as a day not to mourn but to celebrate and speak to the souls of the departed. From this, which is celebrated Nov. 2, came the North American tradition of dressing up like the dead.

“When I was little and lived in Mexico, I remember looking forward to that day of the year when we would go to the cemetery to clean up and decorate the graves of our dearly departed. Instead of sadness, it was a festive event.” Fraga said. “For most Mexicans, we consider the Day of the Dead a good day for communicating with our loved ones that are no longer with us, and reminding them that they still live in our hearts.”

Fraga enjoys seeing family and friends gather to build special altars, which remains a way to continue the tradition whether you live close enough to relatives’ graves. Alters often include flowers, food, drinks, music and other special items the deceased used to love – perhaps a stuffed bear, a certain trinket or their favorite piece of jewelry. These items are called “ofrendas,” which means offerings. The altar also has a photo of the deceased.

“Family members gather around the altar to pray and share stories about our loved ones, which is particularly special for children who may never have known their ancestor and in this way learns a little bit about their family history,” Fraga said. “Some government offices and schools will also build altars. They usually honor famous public figures. I would like to one day coordinate something similar here in Princeton. We could have displays throughout the community hosted by various organizations, and could both honor historical and local public figures, plus also be a teaching moment.”

In light of El Día de los Muertos, the Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton Shopping Center, Edens and Mi Pueblo Lindo will again be hosting an event for Princetonians of all ages to enjoy the Mexican holiday and learn about something besides Halloween. The fiesta will provide many traditional activities, such as strolling mariachis, sugar skull decorating, face painting, live dance performances, as well as food and drink available for purchase by Aurelio’s Cocina Latina.

The festivities will take place at the Princeton Shopping Center from 3-5 p.m. on Nov. 5. The event is free and welcomes all who wish to attend.

“Because Dia de Los Muertos and Halloween are so close together, our celebrations tend to blend together now,” Fraga said. “We Mexicans believe that every soul should be remembered as a happy one.”

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida