Happiness in Latin America: a Matter of Family, Tradition, and Food

The Day of the Dead: exploring the cultural nuances of an ancient Mesoamerican ritual

Día de los Muertos: the happiness of a family reunion.

Today, in order to expand on some previous posts about the collectivist culture of Latin America (in-group collectivism), on the cultural undertones of happiness, and on the claim made by Professor Mariano Rojas that the high happiness situation in Latin America can be attributed to "the abundance and relevance of close and warm interpersonal relations in the region", we are going to talk about the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), a unique multi-day holiday that reunites the living and the dead throughout Latin America.


"The Mexican...is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony."

- Octavio Paz - 



The Day of the Dead is a joyous way to remember, honor and re-engage with family members and beloved friends who have died, a celebration of life and death that successfully combines indigenous Aztec beliefs (the Aztec and other Nahua people living in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica had a cyclical view of the Universe: according to Aztec cosmos mythology, the world and humanity were being constantly renewed in perpetual cycles of change) with elements of Catholicism ("The Aztecs laid out offerings for the King and Queen of the Underworld for the whole month of August, and the Spanish were the first outsiders to witness this honoring of Mictecacihuatl by the Aztecs. Not long after the Spanish exposure to this festival, the Spanish combined the Aztec tradition with Catholicism. Syncretism, the blending of Spanish and indigenous beliefs and practices, combined the Aztec traditions of Día de Los Muertos with the Spanish traditions of All Saint’s Day and All Souls Day").

La Calavera Catrina: death is the great equalizer.

A well-known emblem of this festival is La Calavera Catrina (or “La Calavera Garbancera”), a character created by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada for satirical purposes: as explained by the Illustration Chronicles, "The image – often known as 'The Skull of the Female Dandy' – is a zinc etching that shows a grinning skeleton with a fancy feathered hat. This type of hat would have been common among the upper-classes. During the time in which it was made it would have been common for some members of Mexican high-society to whiten their skin with make-up and adopt aristocratic ways. Becoming more European was a common aspiration for the over-privileged. As the revolution began, Posada created a sort of satirical obituary for this portion of society. For Posada, death was the great equaliser. He is known to have said that 'death is democratic'. No matter your colour or creed, your wealth or your poverty, everyone ends up as a skull in the end."

La Calavera Catrina, Jose Posada
(Image Source: Posada Art Foundation)

(Image Source: © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Desfile de la mega procesión de las catrinas
(Image Source: Wikimedia Commons - By Inés Tan - CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ofrendas: food and flowers to welcome home the spirits of the dead.

During the Day of the Dead family members clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones, and build home altars (ofrendas) to welcome back the people who have died.

(Image Source: Wikimedia Commons - By Ana Karla Aguilar - CC BY-SA 4.0)

Items commonly found on altars include pictures of the deceased, candles (whose glow will guide the dead to the home), copal incense to purify the environment, religious symbols such as crucifixes and images of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus, water, food items, spirits, toys, musical instruments, personal belongings, toiletries, decorative skulls made by either sugar or clay (calaveras), mexican marigolds (cempasúchil, whose fragrance and bright color are believed to lead the deceased to the altar), perforated paper (papel picado).
It's worth noting that ofrendas do typically include the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Earth is represented by food, especially fruit, seeds, and bread (pan de muerto); air is represented by a moving object (papel picado); water is usually left in a container in order for the deceased to calm their thirst after their long journey; fire is represented by candles.



Concerning food, it must be noted that in Latin America the concepts of food, family, and time are inextricably linked (note: Latin American cultures share a  polychronic time orientation).


According to a 2011 research project on Food and Identity Amongst Latinos conducted by the Institure for Latino Studies/University of Notre Dame:

- to the question "What is your ideal vision of a Mexican family eating dinner?", most participants "agreed on similar visions, where the whole family eats together";

- respondents described food "as something a family shares, and unless you are driven to eating for depression or anger, food can often build a sense of togetherness and nostalgia and contentment otherwise lacking in some instances";

- someone sharing their personal experience claimed that "For the family, eating was always done together, never separate, as the meals were always something that brought us together. This establishes that to Mexicans, food helps identify the importance of family and togetherness."

On a related note, a dfferent study on The Use of Family Rituals in Eating Behaviors in Hispanic Mothers reports that the majority of participants "explained that preparing food was very social, although it could involve each person performing a different task, and that learning occurred in social interactions involving observation and guided practice", and that many of them "mentioned that they tried to continue the tradition of preparing and serving traditional food":

- "When I cook, I remember and I say, 'Oh that meal was so good when made by…' or the salsa, I like to make salsa at night, and I always remember that my mom would have us cook. My sister would make the salsa and I would make flour tortillas, and my mom would cook the night meals. The dinner. I always remember that, that she would have my sister and I already designated, 'oh I am making the flour tortillas', 'oh I am making the salsa'. We knew what we had to do!";

- "Well, my aunts … taught me how to make enchiladas.".

Food preparation for Day of the Dead is therefore a way to maintain a strong bond with the dead relatives, to show them love, and to honor their memory.


Attractions and Live Tours (Paid and Free)

Mexico City Pass (P)

Day of The Dead Night Tour (P)

Mexico’s Day of the Dead in Oaxaca (P)

- Teotihuacán Pyramids Sunrise Tour (P)

Guided Visit of the National Anthropological Museum (P)

- Mexico City Food Tour (P)

Mexico City Taco Tour (F)

Free Walking Tour of Coyoacán (F)

Virtual/Online Tours and Exhibits (Free)

- Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico City: Death: From Our Ancestors to the Artisans 

- Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico City: Art is in the Bones

- Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, Mexico City: The Festival of Death in Mexico

- Museo Nacional de la Muerte, Aguascalientes (Mexico): Death in the History of Mexico

- Museo Larco, Pueblo Libre (Peru): Death in Ancient Peru


Lonely Planet Central America (Multi Country Guide)

Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion

- The South American Table: The Flavor and Soul of Authentic Home Cooking from Patagonia to Rio de Janeiro, With 450 Recipes

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal Awards)

The Day of the Dead: A Pictorial Archive of Dia de Los Muertos (Dover Pictorial Archive)

On the Path of Marigolds: Living Traditions of Mexico's Day of the Dead (English and Spanish Edition)

Books on cultural dimensions

- Hofstede, Geert H. (1997). "Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind". New York: McGraw-Hill

- House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W., & Gupta, V. (2004). "Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies". CA: Thousand Oaks



Rojas, Mariano. (2018). "Latin American Happiness has Social Foundations", chapter 6. World Happiness Report 2018

- Hofstede, Geert H. (1997). "Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind". New York: McGraw-Hill

- House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W., & Gupta, V. (2004). "Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies". CA: Thousand Oaks

- Google Arts & Culture: "Day of the Dead". [Online]

- Google Arts & Culture: "Humor and Death". [Online]

- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Aztec Philosophy". [Online]

- World History Encyclopedia: "The Aztec Calendar". [Online]

- StMU History Media: "The Aztec Origins of Día de Los Muertos". [Online]

- Google Arts & Culture: "La Catrina: the character not to be missed". [Online]

- Harry Ransom Center: "José Guadalupe Posada". [Online]

- Illustration Chronicles: "José Guadalupe Posada: Skulls, Skeletons and Macabre Mischief". [Online]

- Google Arts & Culture: "Funny Bones". [Online]

- Google Arts & Culture: "The Meaning of the Altar". [Online]

- Google Arts & Culture: "Colorful Calaveras for the Day of the Dead". [Online]

- Felix, G., & Saldaña, R., Jr. (2011). "Orale! Food and Identity Amongst Latinos". [Institute for Latino Studies, Online]

- Cultura Colectiva: "The best recipes for the Day of the Dead". [Online]

- Coe, K., Benitez, T., Tasevska, N., Arriola, A., & Keller, C. (2018). "The Use of Family Rituals in Eating Behaviors in Hispanic Mothers". Family & community health, 41(1), 28–36. https://doi.org/10.1097/FCH.0000000000000170

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you were to buy any of the products/services listed here, I would earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


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