Written by Chiara Atoyebi
Fuentes, Juan, , Artist. Dia de los Muertos. , 2002. [United States: Publisher not identified] Photograph. .
This past Halloween I decided to do something different. I placed a bucket on the porch full of candy, loaded the kids in the car, and decided to celebrate the Catholic/Christian Triduum holiday of Allhallowtide. Triduum is a period of three days of prayer typically preceding a Roman Catholic feast, and in this case Halloween. In many Black Baptist, Pentecostal, and Jehovah’s Witness homes, Halloween was a no-no. As a child, I was warned about Halloween and the chaos of Devil’s Night, and I was apprehensive about strangers knocking on my door. But as I grew up and learned more about African Traditional Religion and various customs, my perspective changed, and I now appreciate the traditions and customs of the holiday–it has been one of the sources of my healing alongside my faith, all of which have roots that have origins in the ways people worshipped and showed ancestral veneration in civilizations past.
The Hallow’s Eve Vigil service was illuminated with candles and the sanctuary filled with sweet smelling incense floating high above the flower laden altar. The serenity and production is why I am drawn to celebration of Dia De Los Muertos and its Christian counterpart, All Souls Day.
This holiday has become one of my favorites, especially when I reflect on the period between 2017-2020, during which I witnessed several people pass away. Some of these deaths were personal, and I was present for the final moments. I observed changes in personality, heard the death rattle, saw moments of joy, and listened to the last breath. Surprisingly, the atmosphere in the room was tranquil, and the individuals themselves seemed peaceful.
Throughout these experiences, including the passing of my daughter and two grandmothers, as well as writing poetry at the hospice with other women who had also experienced loss, I’ve come to view death as a peaceful portal that holds the magic of life on the other side. While others may find it terrifying, I find it strangely comforting. When you are able to make peace with the divine order of life and loss, death becomes a celebration and return to source–or who I call the “All of All things.”
The 1999 Día de los Muertos celebration in Oakland, California’s Fruitvale neighborhood was a family-oriented festival with many attractions for kids. Photographer unknown. AFC 2001/001-0102-ph04. Donated by Rep. Barbara Lee
African Influence on Dia De Los Muertos
When we think of the Day of the Dead Africans don’t generally come to mind. Yet. like in all aspects of culture there is an African influence and presence found. During the 16th and 17th roughly 200, 000 centuries slaves were brought to New Spain, now Mexico primarily in the Veracruz area. The Afro-Mexican population there has since adopted elements of Mexican culture while maintaining their own unique identity. Despite their substantial numbers, with over one million individuals identifying as Black or Afro-Mexican in a national census, the Mexican government had ignored their contributions for years. It was only in 2015 that the government officially recognized the Afro-Mexican population, honoring their legacy and contributions to Mexican society. Prior to that they’d been classified as indigenous or mixed-race.
Cabrera, Miguel. “De Espanol y Negra Mulata,” courtesy of the Public Domain.
One of the interesting things about these paintings that were painted around the 18th and 19th century is the softness of the depictions. The women, who we can assume were enslaved have their humanity and dignity about depicted. Often in images of Black American life, especially during slavery it is hard to imagine that in their own way enslaved people had any normal range of emotions, affection, or familial discourse that would allow them an inner life not solely narrated through the lens of slavery and their condition. There are few levels to interactions that occurred on a plantation that we know to be true based on slave narratives and human psychology. One may argue that to show anything contrary to the debase brutality of slavery is a slippery slope. However, any narratives devoid of grey area run the risk of creating stereotypes that perpetuate for generations. Yet colonization and slavery, even when attempted to be depicted as normal everyday living is not. Afro-Mexicans continue to fight for equality and to restore their stolen culture and identity.
Afro-Mexicans were known for their Danza de los Viejitos which originated in the Purépecha Region of the Mexican State of Michoacán. The male performers of the dance were called Danzantes or “dancers,” each of the four dancers represented the elements of nature, earth, wind fire, and air. They dressed in the colors that made up corn: yellow, red, white, and blue. The Danzantes, draped in their colorful dress, danced while making petitions to El Dios Viejo for a good harvest to and to commune with the spirits and predict the future. The obeisance to nature’s power over their lives as well as the acknowledgement of the spirits that resided among their dead ancestors in the ground seems natural in its connection of Earth and sky, or what Christians would call heaven and Earth.
For many indigenous cultures around the world, the relationship with nature is deeply intertwined with their spiritual beliefs. Although the nuances differ, the idea of both respecting and honoring the power of the natural world is often seen as a way of maintaining balance and harmony between humans and the environment. Even today, many indigenous communities have maintained rituals and developed ceremonies and sacred spaces in order to celebrate the changing of the seasons, the cycles of the moon, and the natural rhythms of life. Western culture has labeled these practices as “pagan”, ignoring their similarities to All Souls and A Saints Day. The latter is celebrated with a feast similar to a harvest.
Samhain: The Gaelic Pagan Holiday and Original Halloween
Samhain which is Celtic for November, celebrates the fall harvest and winter solstice on November 1st. The tradition dates to the 9th century when they would open the burial grounds and have a feast. These open grounds were seen as portals to the Celtic Otherworld. found in early Irish mythology. The early Christian church led by Pope Gregory I believed it was better to incorporate the traditions of non-Christian people instead of banning them. He believed in the power of the Saints subsequently and their miraculous power. During the 800s the church officially Christianized the pagan holiday making November 1st All Souls Day.
All Hallows’ Eve, Samhain, and Día de los Muertos serve as cultural mirrors reflecting their societies’ perceptions and attitudes towards death and the afterlife; while All Hallows’ Eve has evolved into a night of commercialized fright, fun and for some a day of remembrance. Samhain remains a somber Celtic festival honoring the end of the harvest season and the thinning of the veil between worlds, and Día de los Muertos stands as a vibrant Mexican tradition steeped in indigenous practices that celebrate the duality of life and death, while amplifying the syncretism, remembrance, and communal solidarity it shares with its cultural roots an traditional religion.