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When Connie Rodriguez was a child living in Mexico, she said she felt a little afraid of the skulls and altars she saw around her home and town at the end of October. Her grandmother told her not to worry, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was a happy time, a holiday to be excited about.
The holiday is celebrated throughout Mexico for two days and honors the memories of loved ones who have died. Celebrants believe the souls of their loved ones get to come back to their families one night a year.
Families create alters inside their homes with photos of their dead relatives. Children and babies are remembered on Nov. 1, adults on Nov. 2. Families often celebrate by making their loved ones’ favorite dishes and baking sweet breads together.
“I actually thought they were going to come back when I was a little kid,” Rodriguez said. “I asked my grandma ‘So, he’s going to come back’ and she said ‘No, his soul is going to come back and it’s going to make him happy that we’re remembering him.’ She explained it like ‘He’s coming back, but he’s going to be happy. We’re not going to be able to see him, but he’s going to come back and be happy to see we’re leaving these things out just for him.’”
Rodriguez, a student at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville and a member of the Latin Student Association, said the holiday was always fun because her family would eat together and tell “those crazy stories” about her late grandfather.
The Mexican cultural holiday has its roots in Aztec and Mayan history and is deeply ingrained with the nation’s Catholic heritage. Similar traditions are practiced in other countries under different names.
“In Aztec culture, it was believed that this life is a dream and when you die you are truly waking up from it,” said Maria Palacios, a student at the University of North Georgia and vice president of the Latin Student Association. “They used to keep the skulls of their ancestors as a remembrance of the past that theses people have moved on. I feel it’s more of a coping mechanism to celebrate the holiday.”
The holiday is a lavish celebration in many parts of Mexico and is gaining popularity in the United States.
Palacios said the holiday is a bit muted in the U.S. because so many immigrants aren’t able to visit their relatives graves and celebrate alongside their extended families. She said she’s making an effort to keep the traditions alive in her own family and is passing on stories of relatives to her daughter.
Other young students are also sharing the traditions and learning about Mexican culture.
Fifth-grade students in Ruby Castro’s class at Academies of Discovery in Gainesville studied a poem in Spanish about the holiday Tuesday morning. A few of the students knew all about the holiday from their own experiences and shared their impressions.
Saul Erazo, 10, compared the holiday to Halloween and encouraged his classmates to try celebrating the memories of their loved ones.
“They can try it just one time and if they like it they keep on doing it,” Saul said. “You get to remember your family and other people who died.”
Evelin Corona and Sofia Moreno, both 11, talked about traditions and their excitement on Day of the Dead.
Evelin said her family often celebrates at St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville with other families. Evelin said she always feels excited to celebrate because it means she’ll get to have a party with her family and eat food and sweet breads and drink hot chocolate. She also looks forward to dancing and dressing up like a skeleton.
Sofia’s family doesn’t celebrate the holiday, but her father is from Mexico. She said she has a strong desire to learn about her heritage.
Sofia said children will often dress up in costumes and eat candy sugar skulls and dance to festive music. Sofia said she thinks people may have some misconceptions about the holiday since it follows Halloween.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’s a scary holiday,’” Sofia said. “They have a lot of skulls, but no it’s not scary at all. It’s very festive and probably the scariest thing is there are skeletons for decorations but those aren’t scary at all. It’s a very friendly holiday.”