How Día de Muertos reconnected me to Mexico

How Día de Muertos reconnected me to Mexico

As a third-generation Mexican-American, Rebecca always felt somewhat distant from her heritage. During the pandemic, she found comfort and connection through honouring Día de Muertos

After a particularly rough 2019, I had decided that 2020 was going to be a year of transformational change in my life. Weeks before entering a national lockdown my husband and I adopted our first dog and over the next several months came more significant change.

I quit my job, I started therapy with a counsellor, I explored creative writing as a new hobby and became a British citizen. It was also the year that I celebrated Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, for the very first time.

Observed mostly in Mexico and by Mexicans around the world, Día de Muertos is celebrated on the 1 and 2 November. It’s a holiday where family and friends gather to pay respect and celebrate the lives of loved ones that have passed.

From ofrendas, or altars, in homes to parties and gatherings at gravesites, there are lots of different traditions associated with the holiday.

Its roots can be traced over 3,000 to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica practices. Over the years, the traditional practices became mixed with more ancient European traditions which celebrated the dead, and finally absorbed into Catholic religion.

Participants at the Day of the Dead

Participants at a Day of the Dead procession in San Jose, California, in 2019

As a Mexican-American kid growing up in a largely Hispanic city in California, I had always known that Día de Muertos existed. I knew it was celebrated around Halloween and had something to do with Mexicans, Catholicism (my family was Protestant) and death.

I didn’t know much more than that. I didn’t know anyone that celebrated the day, so to me, 1 and 2 November were just regular days on the calendar.

In January 2018, my childhood curiosity surrounding Díá de Muertos was reawakened. I had just watched Coco, the animated Disney/Pixar movie. Centred around Día de Muertos, the movie follows a young Mexican boy named Miguel who wants to be a musician.

Though I had never been a part of the holiday, the people and their relationships resonated with me so deeply.

"Though I had never been a part of the holiday, the people and their relationships resonated with me so deeply"

At the end of the movie we see a picture of Miguel’s great grandmother Coco on the family ofrenda, the altar—signalling to us that she had passed away.

I was reminded of my own Mexican grandmother, who died when I was a teenager, and my other grandparents with Mexican roots who passed away before I was born. Wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate them and the many other people I knew who had passed? 

Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City

A parade in Mexico City

I emerged from the cinema exhausted from an hour and 45 minutes of intense emotions, ranging from happiness and pride to sadness and longing; my eyes puffy from both joyful and melancholic tears.

I listened to the Coco soundtrack on repeat for months. For the first time in a long time, I felt a deep connection with my culture while in the UK.

That summer I travelled back to California and spent an amazing few weeks with my family and friends, eating Mexican food, absorbing the sunshine. I didn’t know that it would be three years before I would return.

When the pandemic hit, I was stuck. I passed the various lockdowns with my husband and our newly adopted one and a half year old miniature xoloitzcuintli, or xolo for short—a primitive Mexican dog breed, revered by the Aztecs and the Maya.

I left my job in June and spent the next several months applying, interviewing and ultimately being rejected for various jobs. I was working out daily in my garage and exploring creative writing as a new hobby.

All of these things helped but didn’t hide the fact that I was the most homesick I had ever been in my life. I found a counsellor and cried my way through therapy sessions on Zoom.

"All of these things helped but didn’t hide the fact that I was the most homesick I had ever been in my life"

Like millions of other immigrants, I was far from the people and the cultural comforts that I felt I needed to survive. I was used to only seeing my friends and family once a year.

But to not see them for two or three years? That felt like too long and too hard. I wanted to go home, and that just wasn’t possible. The months passed, and my mood worsened. Desperate to help improve my mood, my husband asked if I’d consider doing something for Día de Muertos.   

Colourful participants at the Day of the Dead

For years I had thought about celebrating it, but I was always left with a weird feeling, as though it was somehow wrong for me to celebrate the event.

The truth was that as a third-generation American I always felt a bit disconnected from my Mexican roots. I realised that I was experiencing some sort of cultural imposter syndrome.

How could I celebrate such an important day from a culture that I didn’t feel completely a part of? For me to celebrate Día de Muertos would surely be some sort of cultural appropriation, right?

In the end, I decided that this was something that I wanted to do. I realised that celebrating Día de Muertos would bring some tradition to my very untraditional life and connect me to a culture that I never fully experienced growing up.

I wanted to learn more about the culture of my ancestors and to be given the chance to remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones that have passed.

So at 32 years old, and in the UK of all places, I set up an ofrenda for the first time. Armed with traditional decorations and Mexican foods that my husband bought from an online Mexican shop, we built our altar as best we knew how.

Using carefully stacked boxes, we created a tiered altar, covering it with a colourful serape (a type of Mexican blanket), candles, clay sugar skulls and photos of our loved ones that had passed.

Over the next few days I found myself quietly occupying the room where our small altar stood, staring at pictures of our loved ones fondly recalling memories of grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and even my favourite childhood dog.

"So at 32 years old, and in the UK of all places, I set up an ofrenda for the first time"

Finally able to travel home in summer 2021, I came back to the UK with a small collection of items for our home: a colourful serape, a type of Mexican blanket; hand crafted indigenous art bought in northern Mexico; and a clay figure of a xoloitzcuintli.

The items are displayed proudly in my home, reminding me that I will be forever connected to this rich and vibrant culture.

This year, my husband and I will attend Díá de Muertos festivities in London and connect with other people like me that are celebrating the day far from their loved ones.

I will add fresh marigolds to the ofrenda to help the souls find their way to this world. I plan on enjoying pan de muerto, a traditional type of sweet bread eaten on the day, and drinking champurrado, a hot drink made of chocolate and corn.

I’ll hang out by the ofrenda with my xolo, a dog which the Aztecs believed had healing powers and protected the living as well as guided the dead into the afterlife. And I plan on fully immersing myself in the day, joyfully celebrating a part of my culture that has made its way back into my life.

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