Mexico celebrates a day for the dead that conjugates the religious and the pagan, fear and mockery. This festival is a mixture of Mesoamerican traditions – essentially the Mexica – and the Hispanic world. The playful character that this celebration displays comes from the Aztec cosmic vision, where it had a link to the pre-Hispanic agricultural calendar because it was their only harvesting celebration.  

The origin of the festive aspect is to be found in the concept of death in the Mexica society, where it was understood as part of becoming, not like the end. The festivals were overseen by the Mictecacíhuatl goddess, better known as the “Lady of the Death” (nowadays related to “the Catrina”, Jose Guadalupe Posada’s Character) and wife of Mictlantecuhtli, lord of the dead. Death was seen as an awakening, like a rebirth in the world of the dead. A certain place of the underworld was awarded to each according to the way in which he’d died.

Women who’d died during childbirth went to Cihuatlampa, and they were called the cihuateteo; they became the Sun’s maidens from zenith to twilight and obtained an immortal life, descending in some unfortunate days to Earth as harbingers of diseases and terror.

The festival of the day of dead of divides in two parts, the 1st of November is the day of All Saints, and the following day is the day of all dead. The first day celebrates those who had an exemplary life, as well as the late children. On the second day all dead are celebrated. The celebration has many variations.

The day dead has been reinterpreted in many places. In the Northern border of Mexico, some women working in an assembly plant in Juárez City went missing and then were found assassinated, several of their corpses were found on the 6 and 7 of November of 2001 in an old cotton field, which is why in November 2002 a celebration: “Mourning life” was organized by Our Daughters Returning Home, a group of mothers and relatives; every year since then altars are built in the Museum of Beautiful Arts of Juárez City and in the Institute of Architecture, Design and Arte (IADA) of the Independent University of Juárez City to remember these women. (Text: Patricia Ravelo)

And to honor every woman around the world who has died as a result of diseases or labor accidents, offerings (altars) will be placed in the Alameda of the City of Zacatecas from the 31 of November. Therefore, we invite all congress participants and other interested people or organizations to propose regional offerings, as much of Mexico as of other countries in accordance with the following

 C A L L   F O R    P R O P O S A L S

Exhibition of offerings for the dead

October - November 2008

The V International Congress on Women, Work and Health and the Anthropology School of the University of Zacatecas invite all people, artistic groups, organizations and institutions to partake in the installation-show of offerings for the “Day of Women dead during Work and for Work”, to remember those women who have lost their life as a result of unhealthy work environments, accidents and violence at work.

The offerings will be set out in the Alameda (public plaza) of the City of Zacatecas, from the 27th of October to the 2nd of November, within the framework of the V Congress’ cultural activities. We wish to gather a show with offerings that portray the diversity of traditions in Mexico, Latin America and the world in their particular relation with death, which is why we invite all congress participants to present proposals under the following

 G U I D E L I N E S

  1. Organizations and people of any country interested in paying tribute to the women who died due to diverse labor factors will be able to participate.
  2. Those interested will have to send the proposal describing their installation and indicating specific requirements. The offering must not exceed the following measures: 3 meters deep, 2 meters wide and 2 meters high.
  3. The offerings are meant as a tribute to the women passed away as a result of diseases, accidents or violence in work, and therefore should treat that theme.
  4. Production costs of the offerings will be undertaken by those who propose them. The Organizing Committee of the Congress is at the moment looking for financing, if it’s obtained it will be communicated to all participants.
  5. All regional or artistic elements to be displayed must be transported by the exhibitors.
  6. Each applicant should get a receipt notice, if this should not happen we request to resend proposal.
  7. There will be a selection committee integrated by investigators of the Escuela de Antropología de la Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, visual artists and members of the organizing committee of the V Congress.
  8. For proposals or information contact [email protected], until September 15th of 2008.

Any subject related to the call will be solved by the Culture Coordination of the V International Congress Woman, Work and Health. This was published on the 20th of February the 2008.


The word “altar” comes from the Latin altaria, that in its original meaning, signifies a stone, wood or earth platform where sacrifices were offered to the people immolated to the gods. The archaeological findings have shown indications of an early cult to the dead, for example in Tlatilco, where a series of human burials associated with offerings was found, figurines and containers, as well as objects carved in stone and bone. Whereas the altars and the offerings vary as much as Mexico’s landscapes some traditions are almost unchanged. Presently, the day of the dead in Mexico is a mixture of Christian devotion with the customs and pre-Hispanic beliefs and materializes in the traditional altar-offering, one of the most typical Mexican traditions.

The altar-offering is a respectful rite to the memory of the dead; its intention is to attract their spirits. It’s about giving to the deceased who return that day to visit their relatives the foods and objects they preferred when they were alive, so that they can enjoy themselves during this brief visit. In the offering or altar of the dead must not lack the representation of the four fundamental elements of nature.

Earth: represented by fruits that feed the souls with their essence.

Wind: represented by what moves, as light as the wind, generally pricked paper or Chinese paper.

Water: in a container so that souls can calm their thirst after the long way they’ve had to cross to arrive at the altar.

Fire: a candle for each remembered soul and one for the forgotten soul.

Salt is also placed in the offering to purify and copal burns to guide the souls with its scent, cempasúchil flowers are scattered from the door to the altar to show the way to the souls. And some relative is always waiting there, hoping to prove respect and provide company.

On these altars are ignited wax candles, incense is burned in cooked mud censers, Christian images are displayed: the cross and virgin Guadalupe. And so are pictures of dead people. In cooked mud plates the dead favourite food is placed; these are products that will be consumed right there, generally the region’s own typical dishes. Spiritual drinks or glasses with water, fruit juices, and dead breads adorned with red sugar that simulates the blood; cakes, furnace fruits and candies done with pumpkin. The main flower cempanshuchitl is used for adorning the houses, altars and cementeries.

Related information about the Day of Dead in Mexico

The cosmic vision in the tradition of the dead altars

The Day of Dead in Mexico. History

The Day of Dead in Mexico. Preparation


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Image by Raúl Cedillo
The icons' butterflies are
prehispanic figures

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