When considering the proximity of Día de los Muertos on Nov. 1 to Halloween on Oct. 31, the difference between the two can appear to be unclear for those not familiar with the Mexican tradition.
Héctor Rendón, assistant professor and assistant director of the Harris Institute for Hispanic and International Communication, said one of of the major misconceptions associated with Día de los Muertos begins with its name. While it is commonly called Día de los Muertos in the United States and other parts of the world, Rendón said this is not its original name.
“It’s totally fine, in many places people call it that, but in Mexico originally people call it Día de Muertos,” Rendón said.
Another common misconception regarding the holiday, he said, is its trivialization in being used for economic purposes, like selling products.
“The idea of this holiday is that it’s a way for people to remember family members or loved ones who already passed,” Rendón said. “We’re talking about a more spiritual connection rather than the typical celebration where people go and buy stuff.”
The commercialization of Día de los Muertos is not exclusive to the United States, Rendón said, but rather has extended to some cities in Mexico as well.
“There are many, many towns in Mexico, especially if you go to the states of Michoacán and Oaxaca where they take very seriously the tradition of Día de Muertos,” he said. “People go to the cemeteries at night and they put these flowers called cempasúchil, which is kind of like an orange flower.”
Those celebrating in these states are trying to keep the original traditions and idea of the holiday alive as a spiritual connection, Rendón said, but in bigger cities in Mexico it is celebrated similarly to the way it is in the United States.
Yulianna Gonzalez, a freshman pre-engineering major from Houston and social chair for the Hispanic Student Society, said it is only recently that her family in Mexico has started to celebrate Halloween.
“It’s one of those things were it’s like, you celebrate it here because you’re apart of the U.S.,” Gonzalez said. “It’s almost like, you could say assimilating because its definitely not present in Mexico until recently.”
One of the biggest components of Día de los Muertos, she said, is the fact that all of Mexico celebrates the holiday.
“It’s not just a certain group celebrating, it’s like you have the whole nation united in that one celebration because it starts on November first and goes all the way through, I believe November third, if not November second,” she said.
The main differences between Halloween and Día de los Muertos derive from the beautiful story behind Día de los Muertos, Gonzalez said.
“I think what’s beautiful about it is that you unite under the passing of a loved one,” she said. “Sometimes it’s of course family, but it can be a pet or anyone who has passed away who was really dear to you.”
Gonzalez said in contrast to dressing up for Halloween, the reason behind sugar skull makeup lies in the tradition of uniting with those who have passed.
“You try to be like the dead because its almost like inviting the dead to the living world and you inviting yourself into the world of the dead,” she said. “You’re not sad that day, if anything you’re happy for the life they lived.”
Being raised in a predominantly Mexican community in Houston, Gonzalez said she experienced culture shock when she realized not everybody celebrated Día de los Muertos even within the Hispanic Student Society.
“I mentioned this to my board members and they were like, ‘What a great way to unite the organization,’” she said. “In our organization we don’t only just have Mexicans, we have Puerto Ricans, we have Hondurans.”
Gonzalez said she is celebrating Día de los Muertos by sharing an important part of her culture with the organization, as well planning for them to attend an event together in celebration of the holiday.
“On November second this year, Lubbock has a 5K run,” she said. “While you’re runnning you can either run with crosses or with the names of those who have passed, or you could put it in the ofrenda.”
This event was a way for the Hispanic Student Society to get involved with the community and connect with a part of Mexican culture, Gonzalez said.
“You’re running, you’re living,” she said. “So, it’s almost like they’re living through you.”