Latino Life in Philly

Día de los Muertos: Where the holiday came from and how to celebrate in Philadelphia

The Day of the Dead is about finding beauty and honoring loved ones — and everyone can join in.

Dia de los Muertos is being celebrated in Love Park

Dia de los Muertos is being celebrated in Love Park

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This is one in a series of articles based on questions you asked about Hispanic and Latino life in Philadelphia. Shoutout to reader Dariana Garcia for suggesting we explain and highlight the beauty of this holiday. What else should we report on? Fill out the form below.

Día de los Muertos has been finding its way into more and more U.S. pop culture. From setting the theme of Disney’s “Coco” to informing the backdrop for James Bond action scenes, the Day of the Dead is truly becoming a holiday that reaches beyond the Mexican community.

Consul Carlos Obrador of Philadelphia’s Mexican Consulate thinks that’s a positive development. “We love to share our culture,” he said, inviting people who aren’t necessarily Mexican — or even Hispanic — to join in the celebrations. ” I’m sure everyone, regardless of race or religion, has a sense of honoring their loved ones.”

The origins of Día de los Muertos date back over 3,000 years and are rooted in Aztec lore, where it was believed that honoring ancestors as they crossed between the afterlife and the world of the living would bring a bountiful harvest. Dozens of centuries and a bout of colonial influence later, these indigenous roots have mixed with Catholicism to create three distinct holidays: Día de los Muertos; All Saints Day, which honors children who have died; and All Souls Day, which celebrates the lives of perished adults.

The point of each holiday is similar: to find the beauty that can underlie grief and help the souls of loved ones find peace by remembering what made their lives special. Festivities are traditionally marked by elaborate graveyard picnics, lively processionals, and vibrant ofrendas decorated with sweet bread (to nourish the soul), marigolds (to attract the soul), and salt (to purify the soul).

Members of Philly’s Mexican community do want to get one thing straight: the holiday is not the same as Halloween.

“The purpose of the days are completely different,” said Ivette Compean Rodríguez, executive director of Philly’s Mexican Cultural Center. “Halloween is about spookiness and trick-or-treating and fun — not that Día de los Muertos isn’t fun. But it’s mainly about respect and honoring someone who’s no longer with you.”

Rodgríuez and Obrador are partnering with the city on a themed bike ride on Oct. 31. Events like these, they say, have a twofold objective: to clear up misconceptions about the holiday, and provide Mexican immigrants with a way to keep up with their traditions.

Consul Obrador points to cultural gulfs that make it difficult to celebrate Día de los Muertos exactly as they did back home. Americans stopped picnicking in cemeteries during the 1800s, and it can be hard to find some ofrenda staples at the supermarket. Case in point: The Mexican Cultural Center had a hard time finding marigolds for their public ofrenda installation in LOVE Park, which could’ve made the altar less effective.

Looking to celebrate Día de Los Muertos in Philly? We rounded up four days of events inspired by the holiday.

Taller de Calaveritas de Azúcar – Day of the Dead Sugar Skull Workshop

Free Library of Philadelphia Culinary Literacy Center, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

A staple of any Día de los Muertos ofrenda, calaveras are ornate sugar skulls that represent the loved ones being celebrated on the altar and the sweetness of their lives. Learn how to make one with local artist Ivonne Pinto-Garcia and the Philadelphia Folklore Project at this easy-to-follow workshop that will be led in both Spanish and English. Virtual and in-person attendees are welcome to pick up their skulls ahead of time — or try your hands at sculpting one in the kitchen.

Cost: $10 to $18

Picnic & Paint: FRIDA’s Día de los Muertos

Horticultural Drive, Friday, Oct. 29, 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. 

Spend an afternoon in Fairmount Park painting and sipping as you create self-portraits inspired by Frida Kahlo’s “The Frame,” which incorporates the holiday’s signature marigold flowers. Led by artist and art teacher Miranda Blas, the workshop will function like a grown-up version of your elementary school art class with snacks provided and no artistic skills necessary.

Cost: $50

Day of the Dead Celebration

Fleisher Art Memorial, Saturday, Oct. 30, 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Spend the day in South Philly celebrating your ancestors with an agenda of events planned by La Calaca Flaca, Fleisher Art Memorial’s volunteer committee of Mexican Philadelphians who plan the event from the ground up. This year’s celebration will honor women as “leaders, mothers, and mentors” as they’re encouraged to lead the evening’s procession down 8th street to Geno’s Steaks and back down 9th Street. They’ll be mask-painting and candle decorating workshops for children in the afternoon and a craft fair and fashion show to close out the night.

Cost: Free

Day of the Dead Bike Ride

LOVE Park, Sunday, Oct. 31, 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. 

In Mexico, it’s common for families to ride bikes in full costume to cemeteries during Día de los Muertos before picnicking with the deceased, said Ivette Compean Rodríguez, the Executive Director of Philly’s Mexican Cultural Center. Co-sponsored by the Mexican Consulate, the 1.5 mile journey will start at the intersection of 11th and Washington streets and end at LOVE Park’s oversized ofrenda, which is inspired by the holiday’s indigenous origins.

Cost: Free

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