The Native Roots of Dia De Los Muertos


The following is McKenna’s address at the Day of the Dead Celebration at Pima Community College West campus on November 1, 2019.

Lios enchi ania, Inepo Alexandria Mckenna tea

Hello and good evening to you all. I just gave my traditional greetings in Yoem Noki, or Yaqui Language. My name is Alexandria McKenna, I come from the Barrio Libre Pascua Yaqui Community. This is my second year at Pima, as well as my second year as NASA’s President. I want to thank all of you for being here tonight and joining our community in celebrations today. For myself and my community this is the second to the last day of our season known as Animam Mikwame. This evening I wanted to start Native American Heritage Month by sharing the indigenous roots of the holiday many people know today as Dia De Los Muertos or Day of the Dead. I wanted to remind not only non-natives on this land, but also my northern native relatives here that Dia de Los Muertos isn’t just a Latin American celebration, but rather Indigenous tradition. I want to acknowledge that many of my northern relatives have life and death traditions as well. However tonight I wanted to center southern indigenous peoples because we are often disregarded and ignored when it comes to our indigeneity. When I say southern indigenous peoples I am referring to those of us that have communities and origins south of the colonial U.S. Mexico border. 

The current Dia De Los Muertos that is celebrated widely by many Latinx people, is a mixture of indigenous belief systems and colonial catholic influence. However in predominantly indigenous populated regions of the southwestern U.S, Mexico, and Latin America, the holiday is celebrated in a prehispanic way. Prehispanic refers to the time prior to the Spanish invasion. As of 2008 the tradition was inscribed in the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. Dia De Los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human cycle of life. A continuation of childhood, adulthood, and growing up. On Dia De Los Muertos the dead are once again a part of the community, awakened from their sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones and families. In the agricultural cycle the holiday coincides with the end of the corn cycle, this is represented in some way with the offerings that are made to the dead with food.

Offerings are fundamental to Dia De los Muertos as it is a way to have our deceased loved ones visit us and enjoy life on earth again. This is why in Latin American households especially indigenous ones, open the door to receive our ancestors during this time. 

Now I would like to highlight some of the ways different indigenous peoples in Mexico Celebrate. 

The Otomi people of the state of Hidalgo believe that life does not end with death, it is only a step to a better life and by that condition the deceased have a “duty” or obligation to visit their loved ones in November and live together with them. In itself death is not eternal and this thought and practice are reflected in these people’s beliefs. 

The Me’phaa region of the Tlapaneca People is located in the State of Guerrero. The Day of the Dead in Tlapaneca tradition includes deceased adults being received with mole, tamales, and mezcal. This day relatives and compadres make visits carrying offerings with them. Community is considered sacred and preparations for the arrival of the deceased beings 15 days before. On November first the little dead arrive, meaning young children and youth who have passed on. On November second the big dead arrive.

The Nahuas are one of the largest groups of indigenous people in Mexico. They live scattered from the south of Durango to Tabasco. Similar to the Yoeme people preparations are made an entire month before the Day of the Dead. On october 31st the little angles or deceased children visit their relatives. Their altars are adorned with flowers, pumpkin candies, and figures of angels, On the 1st the great dead are celebrated and received and on the 2nd the tombs are decorated and cleaned. Inhabitants of the Coatepec Costales are especially connected to their spirituality stating, “It is a part of our culture as indigenous people that has been transmitted from generation to generation. This is why it must be maintained, it is the heritage of our ancestors.”

The Zapotecs are an indigenous group living in the central valleys of Oaxaca. In this community for Day of the Dead, family altars are installed permanently. In some cases tables are also installed so that offerings may always have room. The celebration  begins on October 31st. Bread, chocolates, and fruits are made as offerings. On November 2nd at 2p.m. the deceased are believed to begin making their journeys back to their realm.

The Yoeme or Yaqui people are an indigenous group located in both Mexico and the United States with communities in Sonora, California, Arizona, and Texas. On Oct. 1st Itom Achai (our father) opens the gates for the Animam (deceased) to come and visit their relatives and compadres. They are said to arrive at Alva before dawn. A high table is made ready with coffee, water, and a candle to guide our relatives to us. The animam are tired and thirsty from their journey. On November 1st we put the animam’s favorite foods and objects on the tall table . Hot food is best since the animam are said to take in steam from hot foodsOnce they are finished we give them thanks for visiting and offer prayers for them. 

The Totonac communities are located in the coastal plains of the state of Veracruz and in the northern highlands of Puebla. Ninin is the name that receives the party known as the Days of the Dead, this is known throughout all of Totonac territory. The term Ninin means “dead” in the Totonac language and is used to refer to the season in which the souls of the deceased return.  The altar is understood as a small world that contains the earth, its aromatic vegetation that flowers give, the water that is placed below and on the altar to symbolize the earth itself. On the top is the sky made with tepejilote leaves, and the stars and the sun made with coyol palm leaves. The altar contains four spaces which symbolize four universes in which the deceased have gone to. 

These examples are not to be appropriated, but to enrich the knowledge of those of you here tonight. These communities are only a handful of the many groups of indigenous peoples in Mexico. Today 21% of Mexico’s population is indigenous or around 25,694,928 people. These are only a handful of indigenous traditions celebrated today for Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico. Our pre colonization spirituality and beliefs are being preserved and shared for the next generation. We are still here. 

Thank you to all of you here who have been open to listening. Thank you to our advisers Margarita Youngo and Dianna Repp, to Dean Parker, all of the NASA members, and Student Life. We appreciate you Deeply. Enjoy the celebration.

Hiokoe Utte’esia