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All About Dia de Muertos with Miss Lex!
As someone who lived in a foreign country for 32 years, Dia De Los Muertos was something that we heard about, but not something we knew how to properly practice. Even coming from a family with two Mexican parents, it wasn’t something that was celebrated every year in Canada. At least not in the way our family celebrated back home in Mexico.
People from all around the world have fallen in love with this beautiful yet haunting Mexican tradition, in which we celebrate our dearly departed. The food, the costumes, the calaveras, the music, the marigolds, are all an incredible experience for your senses to appreciate. However, before appreciating this more than 3000 year old tradition. It is important that we appreciate Dia de Los Muertos in all its glory. Meaning, understanding it from its roots so that the world’s sometimes surface appreciation doesn't toggle into appropriation.
Though the origins of DDLM have been traced back to the Aztecs, once the Spaniards came to Mexico introducing Catholicism, a cultural blend began to occur and the holiday eventually became a mix of both cultural beliefs. Dia de Muertos came to be from a mixture of the Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess, Mictecacihuatl, with the Catholic influence. Mictecacihuatl is the “lady of the dead” and it is said that she watches over the bones of the dead and swallows the stars during the day. The church rejected the Aztecs’ beliefs and turned it into “All Saints Day” and “All Souls' Day” making the holiday on two days to fall into the catholic calendar. Mexicans have since transformed it into a truly special holiday that they honor every year. That is why Dia De Los Muertos is celebrated on Nov 1 and Nov 2.
When a loved one passed away, it was believed that they travelled to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. At this point, they would have to journey through nine challenging levels, a journey of several years, to reach their souls final resting place in Mictlán. In Nahua rituals honoring the dead, traditionally held in August, family members provided food, water and tools to aid the deceased in this difficult journey. In our contemporary version of Dia De los Muertos, it’s believed that the border between the spirit world and the real world dissolves. During this brief period, the souls of the dead awaken and return to the living world to feast, drink, dance and play music with their loved ones. In turn, the living family members treat the deceased as honored guests in their celebrations, and leave the deceased’s favorite foods and other offerings at gravesites or on the ofrendas (altars) built in their homes.
The most prominent symbols related to the Day of the Dead are calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). In the early 20th century, the printer and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada incorporated skeletal figures in his art mocking politicians and commenting on revolutionary politics. His most well-known work, La Calavera Catrina, or Elegant Skull, features a female skeleton adorned with makeup and dressed in fancy clothes. The 1910 etching was intended as a political statement about Mexicans adopting European customs over their own heritage and traditions. La Calavera Catrina was then adopted as one of the most recognizable Day of the Dead icons.
Here are some of the most traditional symbols used in DDLM practices:
The Aztecs used to offer water and food to the deceased to help them on their journey to the land of the dead. Now, Mexican families set up beautifully decorated altars in their homes and place photos of the loved ones they have lost along with other items.
The ofrendas usually consist of photographs, water, the loved one’s favorite food and drink items, flowers, bread, and other things that celebrate the dead person’s life.
Marigolds are used during Dia de Muertos celebrations by being placed on the altars and on the burial sites. The Marigold flower is thought to guide the spirits back with their intense color and strong smell.
Skulls are a huge part of the holiday. Skulls were used during rituals in Aztec times and passed on as trophies during battles.
Today, during Dia de Los Muertos, small decorated sugar skulls are placed on the altars. They are decorated with colorful edible paint, glitter, beads, and sport huge smiles. The most iconic, La Catrina, has become one of the biggest symbols of Day of the Dead with people painting their faces with skulls and flowers.
Papel picado means perforated paper and is an integral part of Mexican culture. The art comes from the Aztec tradition of chiseling spirit figures on wood. It is used during Day of the Dead celebrations by stringing them on the altars and in the streets. Ofrendas showcase fire, water, earth, and air. Papel picados represent air on the altar.
My favourite part of this beautiful tradition is the belief that death is not something to be feared, but something to be celebrated. That our loved ones will always be there with us, through every step of our journey, and their journey. And that somehow, we always stay connected in every life, because our love for one another has no end.
On that note, Feliz Dia de Los Muertos!
Miss Lex has been a teacher with Helen Doron English CDMX for almost 2 years, and focuses primarily on teen and adult courses.Lex is a Native English speaker trained in Business English and Early Childhood English through the University of Toronto. Originally from Toronto (Canada), Lex is both Mexican and Canadian. She studied Creative Advertising (Marketing), and has worked as a professional musician and songwriter since the age of 16.