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What is Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead?

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Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a celebration of life and death. While the holiday originated in Mexico, it is celebrated all over Latin America. The British Museum shows how every year the dead are remembered and summoned by the observances of the living, who cook, make music and decorate their graves.

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In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Día de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. The theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. It originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful.

The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living.

Calavera was used to describe short, humorous poems, which were often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs published in newspapers that poked fun at the living and are a popular part of the celebrations. Mexican political cartoonist and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada created an etching to accompany a literary calavera. In 1947, artist Diego Rivera featured Posada’s stylized skeleton in a mural and named her Catrina, slang for “the rich.” Today, the calavera Catrina, or elegant skull, is the Day of the Dead’s most ubiquitous symbol.

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