day of the dead, jessica aldridge
Performance Rituals and Traditions

Drums and Dance of Día de los Muertos


In pre-Hispanic Nahua culture of what is now known as Mexico, life was seen as a dream, and only in dying could a human truly awaken. Death would set free the soul. Scroll down for the slideshow featuring Day of the Dead celebrated at multiple Los Angeles venues.

aztec deity, Day of the Dead, Dia de los MuertosVeneration of an Aztec Goddess

In Aztec (Mexicah) mythology, Mictecacihuatl (pronounced ‘Meek-teka-see-wahdl’) is Queen of Mictlan, the underworld, ruling over the afterlife with Mictlantecuhtli, another deity who is her husband.

She watches over the bones of the deceased and presided over ancient festivals of the dead. She also presides over contemporary festivals, Aztec traditions evolved and synthesized with Spanish Catholic cultural traditions into the modern Day of the Dead. Mictecacihuatl is known as the Lady of the Dead, since it is believed she was sacrificed as an infant. Her cult persists in the common Mexican worship of Santa Muerte.

Mictecacihuatl was represented with a defleshed body (a skeleton) and with jaw agape to swallow the stars during the day.

Dia de los Muertos reunites and honors beloved ancestors, family and friends. In pre-Hispanic Nahua culture (Aztec and the many other peoples of Central Mexico), death would set free the soul. Half-painted faces and life-death statuettes represent the duality of life.

In pre-Hispanic Nahua culture, life was seen as a dream, and only in dying could a human truly awaken, with their soul set free.

Ofrenda de Olvera Street with Sugar Skulls or CalacasDeath was not to be feared nor so much a mystery, but an integral part of life. When Christianity was introduced in the 16th Century, its symbols blended with the ancient indigenous altars. The spirits of the children (the little angels) return on November 1st, All Saints Day, and November 2nd, All Souls Day commemorates the faithful departed, and with the offerings, altars, visits to the cemeteries, people can share stories of the ancestors, with feasting, flowers, and candles.

La Placita Church in 1857
1857 Drawing of La Placita Church (Mission Nuestra Senora de La Reina de Los Angeles), Olvera Street, Los Angeles – From the California Historical Society Collection at USC

Our Lady Queen of the Angels (La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles), La Placita Roman Catholic Mission Church is located at Olvera Street, Los Angeles. The “Old Plaza Church” was founded in 1814 at the base of a ruined sub-mission that served the settlers of the outpost known as Los Angeles. Part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, it stood as the city center under the Spanish (1781-1821), Mexican (1821-1847) and the US through the rest of the 19th Century.

STORY: B. Traven’s “Macario” – Magical Realist Journey on Day of the Dead

Mictlantecuhtli, husband of Mictecacihuatl and Lord of Mictlan, the lowest and northernmost section of the underworld. One of the principal gods of the Aztecs, his worship sometimes involved ritual cannibalism, with human flesh being consumed in an around the temple. Two life-size clay statues were found marking the entrances to the House of the Eagles to the north of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, near present day Mexico City. His head is a skull with eye sockets, headdress decorated with owl feathers, wearing a necklace of human eyeballs, earspools of human bones. In the Aztec codices, he is often depicted with jaw opened, receiving the stars that come into him during the daytime.

  • Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery
    Altar at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. (Image: Jack Eidt - WilderUtopia)
  • Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, Autry Museum
    Day of the Dead Dancer with the Xocoyote Troupe at the Autry Museum. (Image: Jessica Aldridge)
  • Day of the Dead, Los Angeles
    This Day of the Dead, centered by the Virgen as Calaca, or skull, was set up at Olvera Street in Los Angeles. (Image: Jack Eidt-WilderUtopia)
  • marigolds
    Marigolds guide the spirits to their altars using their fragile and fleeting vibrant colors and pungent scent.
  • Day of the Dead Dancer, Autry Museum
    Day of the Dead Dancer at the Autry Museum (Image: Jessica Aldridge)
  • Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever
    Procession of painted calacas (skulls) at Hollywood Forever's Day of the Dead celebration. (Image: Jack Eidt)
  • Day of the Dead, Los Angeles
    Olvera Street in Los Angeles has a yearly celebration for Day of the Dead. (Image: Jack Eidt)
  • Day of the Dead altars
    Day of the Dead altars, known as altares de muertos or ofrendas, show the souls the way home, reminding them they are not forgotten.
  • Day of the Dead altars, Mexico traditions
    Day of the Dead altars have many different elements, depending upon the region of Mexico the family comes from, based on season availability of flowers and fruits and the traditional foods from that area.
  • Day of the Dead altars
    In some areas altars are made with two levels, symbolizing heaven and Earth, but sometimes purgatory is included. And some have seven different levels, symbolizing the steps a souls has to make to get to heaven or the Land of the Dead at Mictlan.
  • Day of the Dead Altar
  • copal resin, day of the dead
    Copal resin from the Bursera Bipinnata tree from Mexico and Central America, is burned as food for the gods in Day of the Dead ceremonies.
  • Day of the Deaqd dances, Chiapas
    These young dances performed a dance from Chiapas at Day of the Dead in Los Angeles. (Image: Jessica Aldridge)
  • Day of the Dead
  • Hall of Calacas at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (Image: Jack Eidt)

Photography by Jessica Aldridge and Jack Eidt

Updated 1 February 2021

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  4. Pingback: B. Traven's "Macario" - Magical Realism on Day of the Dead |

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