Orange Media Network


Orange Media Network


Orange Media Network



Celebrating Identity: “Dia de Muertos” by Tess Ellis

Dia de Muertos: A Symbol of Mexico’s Cultural Diversity and Resilience

A sea of candles, yellow and orange marigolds, smells of freshly baked Pan de Muertos (or “bread of the dead”), and music playing throughout every corner of Mexico’s graveyards. This is Mexico’s Día de Muertos, or as the United States knows it, Day of the Dead. Mexico’s celebration of the dead has gained international popularity and has made its way into the homes of Americans. Despite Día de Muertos’ international popularity, it must leave many asking themselves why would a culture celebrate the dead?

Honoring death is engraved in Mexico’s history and can be traced as far back as the time of the Aztecs, a northern Mexico nomadic tribe who arrived in Mesoamerica in the 13th century ( Editors, 2022). For the Aztecs, the queen of the underworld, Mictēcacihuatl, was at the center of their death-related celebrations and traditions. Mictēcacihuatl would watch over the bones of the dead, playing a primary role in the nine-level journey to the afterlife. Death was seen as a normal part of the cycle of life, thus, being something to celebrate rather than mourn. Ofrendas or offerings also played a part in Aztec celebrations, and are still implemented into Mexico’s Día de Muertos (Ingram, 2021).

The Mexican government has titled modern-day Día de Muertos “a tradition that transcends time.” During this celebration, the dead return home to the land of the living to coexist with their families and to feed from the essence of the foods and gifts from the countless offerings (Municipal, 2019). November 1st is officially known as All Saints’ Day but is referred to in Mexico as Día de Los Angelitos or “day of the small angels”. This day is dedicated to young children and infants. November 2nd is dedicated to adults.

Weeks from Día de Muertos, stores begin to fill their shelves with chocolate and sugar skulls, colorfully decorated with icing patterns. Students begin preparing their yearly tumba (grave) project, crafting them from cardboard, fake flowers, paint, and a miniature skeleton which can be seen through a clear plastic window on the graves. Some people even decorate themselves like skeletons with face paint and traditional dress. One of the most iconic Día de Muertos symbols can be traced back to the great Mexican lithographer, José Guadalupe Posada. Posada created his piece, La Catrina, in about 1910. Although his piece was meant to be a satirical jab at Mexico’s leader’s obsession with high European society, it is now one of the most recognizable symbols of Día de Muertos (Brandes, 1998).

Mexico’s representation of death can even be comedic at times. The biography of the Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, written by Hayden Herrera, boasts an iconic image of Kahlo in her sickbed after her horrific bus accident in 1925. In the image, we see Frida holding a colorful sugar skull with her name decorated in icing on the skull’s forehead. This image offers a peek into both Kahlo’s humor and Mexico’s sometimes light representation of death. Humorous representations of death can be again traced back to the Aztecs. In the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City sits a miniature Aztec clay mask. The mask is split into two sides. One represents life, boasting a smiling fleshy human face. The other is a fleshless, bony figure. Although it may seem a bit frightening to some viewers, this mask beautifully represents the natural and inescapable duality of life and death and Mexico’s ancient views on death’s continuity. This may still leave some asking themselves, how could death become such a light topic?

One of the potential causes for Mexico’s unique view of death is ancient sacrificial religion. In the Aztec religion, death by sacrifice was seen as a privilege and was reserved for those destined for higher fates (Kelly, 1974). Warriors, those who were killed in war, and women who died in childbirth were honored and regarded as gods. Their respect for war deaths can be seen in their poetry, found in the compilation of Nahuatl songs and poems, Romances de los señores de la Nueva España:

Oh giver of life!
Your sacrifice is like emeralds and turquoise.
It is the happiness and wealth of princes
To die at the edge of the obsidian,
To die in war. (f. 42)

With the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, thriving civilizations such as the Aztecs faced colonization and the destruction of their religious beliefs. Horrified at Mexico’s religious practices, Spain used brutal force to replace native religions with Catholicism. This marked the beginning of Mexico’s mestizaje or mixing of races, and sadly, began the silencing of the voices of the indigenous people of Mexico. Spain undoubtedly caused lasting scars on Mexico’s history and its ability to maintain its traditions. But if Mexico is still celebrating traditions like Día de Muertos, how bad can it really be?

The Día de Muertos we see today is the result of hundreds of years of forced religious influences and cultural collisions. It is one of the major Mexican traditions that still stands to this day, but even this nationally recognized celebration is disappearing. Although in major metropolitan areas, Día de Muertos parades, ads, and street art can be found scattered throughout cities, the essence of Día de Muertos is harder to find. Traditional hand-made foods are being replaced by store-bought replicas, family gatherings are becoming smaller and ofrendas (offerings) are now being used as business marketing tactics. One of the causes of this change is the commercialization of Día de Muertos.

In recent years, animated films such as Book of Life and Coco have undoubtedly helped Día de Muertos gain international recognition, but have ultimately caused a commercialized image of the tradition. This new image of Día de Muertos has even made its way into Mexican homes. If Walmart’s mass production of candy skulls and other Día de Muertos products does not sound bad enough, take Disney as an example. Before the release of Coco, Disney applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to essentially own the phrase “Día de Muertos(Rodriguez, 2013). Nike has also joined the Día de Muertos merch bandwagon by releasing their Somos Familia collection in October 2022 (Vlahos, 2022). Nike’s collection was designed to “honor” the Mexican tradition. Surprisingly, however, Nike is yet to share information on where their collection is produced, and no mention of Mexico or Mexican artist or artisans can be found on their website. One thing that companies like Disney and Nike do is to add to the hype around Día de Muertos, and as a result, increase international interest in Mexico and its death-related festivities.

In 2022, Mexico’s Tourism Minister, Miguel Torruco, estimated 2.16 million people traveling to Mexico for Día de Muertos festivities (Davies, 2022). Although this is undoubtedly an incredible  financial opportunity for Mexico, it may be contributing to Mexico’s shying away from traditional celebrations for the simple sake of attracting more tourism, and thus, more money. In Oaxaca, the most culturally diverse state in Mexico, traditional recipes and customs can still be appreciated in the small towns surrounding its major city. Oaxaca City, however, is now focusing more on the party aspect of the tradition, and the opportunity for selling hand-made Día de Muertos-related products.

Oaxaca is well-known for its crafting of Zapotecan wool rugs, which are made from natural dyes and patterns passed down by generations, and their Barro Negro (black clay) pottery. Although their traditional crafting skills are unparalleled, many communities have decided to switch to more “sellable” products, such as simple skull-shaped ashtrays and shot glasses. This reflects badly on the tourists visiting Mexico. Instead of educating themselves on Mexican traditions and their cultural significance, many are there for cheap souvenirs and mezcal.

To be able to travel and sell their products in such a competitive event as Día de Muertos, artisans have had to make another major sacrifice; trading in their native languages for Spanish. Oaxaca alone holds 16 native dialects. Although language deterioration began with the arrival of the Spanish, Mexico’s increasing obsession with “whiteness” is playing a big role in the partial or complete loss of languages and traditions. The opportunities available to those who do not speak Spanish in Mexico are not only limited, they are non-existent (Medrano, 2003).

Mexico is becoming a country where moreno, prieto, and Indio (brown, black, and Indian) are now considered abusive and derogatory words. Colorism can be seen in the Mexican government, media, and advertising (Goméz, 2021). Education in Mexico is offered strictly in Spanish, and if children cannot speak, read or write it, they cannot receive primary education. This raises an important question: What can be done in a country that turns against its own people? Mexico’s indigenous people have been fighting for their rights and acceptance for hundreds of years, but thanks to technology and virtualization, it may be the first time since the arrival of the Spanish that they can truly be heard. For Mexico to successfully conserve and respect its cultural heritage, it cannot stand alone in the fight for its rights.

Día de Muertos is one of the few traditions that still stand after hundreds of years of external influences, and it serves as an example of Mexico’s resilience. However, when international companies like Nike and Disney are fighting for a piece of the Día de Muertos merch pie, unsurprisingly, they are worsening the matter. Mass-producing tennis shoes with mimicked mural-like patterns and shades of orange and yellow like the marigolds used on graves might be beautiful, but Mexico sadly receives zero credit for being the designers and creators of such enchanting tradition. In fact, they actually lose the spotlight on their own traditional crafts. After all, who would want a Zapotecan wool rug which can take months to create when Nike can ship you a pair of their Somos Familia shoes in under a week, free shipping included?

The choices that international markets and tourists make have a major impact on Mexico. By being more conscious of the issues and difficulties that Mexican indigenous groups are facing, people may think twice about commercializing culturally-important celebrations for profit. Tourists in Mexico can also choose to be more conscious about where they put their money, as supporting indigenous communities could potentially have an enormous impact on their ability to thrive in an increasingly ostracizing society.

Día de Muertos is much more than a pattern on a shoe, a song in a movie, or a travel destination for tourists. Día de Muertos is deeply rooted in Mexico’s heart and tethers new generations to ancestral beliefs and idealism. It represents Mexico’s religious beliefs, its focus on strong community ties, and its respect for both life and death. It showcases Mexico’s diversity, with each state including its own twist on the ancient celebration. Most importantly, it can at times represent Mexico’s purest form, without the scars of forced change and cultural silence. Understanding Día de Muertos allows it to receive the respect it deserves, and hopefully, helps maintain its important position in Mexico’s culture. After all, without it, Mexico would be losing yet another piece of its culturally-diverse roots, and after so much loss, what would be left?


Works Cited

Brandes, S. (1998, March 1). Iconography in Mexico’s Day of the Dead: Origins and Meaning.
Bierhorst, John. Ballads of the Lords of New Spain: The Codex Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España. University of Texas Press, 2009. Project MUSE
Davies, P. (2022, November 2). Day of the Dead tourism predicted to generate over 37 billion pesos in revenue. Mexico News Daily.
Goméz, A. (2021, March). Not in the eyes of the beholder: Racialisation, Whiteness and Beauty Standards in Mexico. El Colegio De México.
Ingram, S. (2021, November 1). La catrina: The dark history of Day of the Dead’s immortal icon. National Geographic. story-day-deads-immortal-icon
Kelly, P. F. (1974). Death in Mexican Folk Culture. American Quarterly, 26(5), 516–535.
Medrano, E. (2003, May). Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples in Mexico Public Policies to Prevent and Reduce It. UNAM. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from
Rodriguez, C. Y. (2013, May 11). Day of the Dead trademark request draws backlash for Disney. CNN.
Vlahos, N. (2022, October 18). Nike Officially Unveils The Día de Muertos Somos Familia Collection. Sneaker News. ollection-air-force-1-dunk-high-jordan-1-zoom-cmft-air-max-1-202


An Interview with Tess Ellis


What type of art do you make? What is your primary medium (or mediums)?

I enjoy expressing myself through different forms of writing. Although essay writing has been one of my primary forms of art since I became an OSU student, I also enjoy writing music!

Tell us the story behind your Prism submissions.”

My essay submissions, Dia de Muertos: A Symbol of Mexico’s Cultural Diversity and Resilience, and The Sacred Cenotes of the Maya: A Passageway to the Underworld, are both inspired by my deep respect and admiration for Mexican culture.

Although I was born in the United States, I was raised in a tiny Mexican pueblo on the skirt of the Madre Occidental mountain range in Sonora. Despite my lack of Mexican ancestry, I have always been wholeheartedly welcomed by the Mexican community. Through my writing, I aim to express my deep gratitude and respect for Mexico and its people.

I am sincerely grateful to the PRISM team for for creating a safe-space for cultural discussion.

How does your cultural or personal identity inform your creative work? Would you say that your background influences a lot of your creative process?

I have been fortunate enough to receive highly multicultural and multilingual influences in literature, music, and art. These influences play a crucial role in the way I see the world, and how I express myself creatively. I consider myself very fortunate to have received such a culturally colorful upbringing.

Do you find that there are parts of your identity that have felt consistent or reliable throughout your life? Have you found that other parts have grown over time?

Yes, there are definitely parts of my identity that have remained consistent throughout my life, especially those that I developed through my upbringing. However, as I gain more experience in my personal, professional, and academic life, I have also had the opportunity of adding new parts to my identity. Throughout the past few years, I have learned that there is much more to be gained from hardship than there is from comfort, and although growth pains are uncomfortable, they help us become better versions of ourselves. Pretty worth it if you ask me!

When it comes to personal expression, do you find yourself more called to tradition and past experience, or to contemporary issues and ongoing self-exploration?

Higher education has pushed me to find a harmonious balance between past experience and self-exploration. As a Computer Science major, I am constantly submerged in a world of contemporary issues. Through my creative work and OSU’s effort in supporting creative expression, however, I am able to escape the world of newness and rest in the known of tradition and past experience. I must confess, it’s like a much-needed breath of air at times!

Are there any other artists in your community or pieces connecting to your identity that have been creative influences on your artistic journey?

My mother, Robin, published a memoir of her experience with breast cancer before passing away in 2015. Her writing was intelligent, witty, emotional, and honest. Through years of practice, I hope to reach a level of self-expression in which I, like my mother, can motivate and inspire others.

Has OSU had a positive, negative, or neutral effect on being able to explore and express yourself?

OSU has had nothing but a positive effect on my ability to explore and express myself personally, professionally, and academically. As a first generation student, I was terrified of joining a world that seemed so foreign to me, both academically and culturally. However, during my time at OSU, I have received nothing but kindness and support from my peers and the academic staff.

I would like to express my deep gratitude to my Professors, Stephen Rust and Annette Rubado, who motivated me to submit my essay pieces for publication. Your kindness and dedication to your students do not go unnoticed.




Biography: I am an OSU Honors Sophomore with a passion for creative writing majoring in Computer Science!

Although American by birth, I was raised in a small Mexican town on the skirts of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in Sonora. Over my lifetime, I’ve had the honor of exploring all 32 Mexican states and have developed a deep admiration and respect for Mexico and its rich culture. Writing has served as a powerful tool for me to express my love for Mexico and a platform for me to share some of Mexico’s current issues. As I move forward with my education at OSU, I will continue to seek new ways in which I can share my love for Mexico with those around me.

Artist Statement: Both of my essays, Dia de Muertos: A Symbol of Mexico’s Cultural Diversity and Resilience and The Sacred Cenotes of the Maya: A Passageway to the Underworld, were inspired by my desire to shed light on Mexico’s struggles that do not commonly reach international audiences. Although Mexico is commonly associated with drug wars and “Narcos”, these issues tend to overshadow Mexico’s less marketable environmental and cultural struggles. Both essays served as a platform for me to share a piece of Mexico’s remarkable history and some of the current struggles of its people, their culture, and their land.

I dedicate my work to Professor Annette Rubado and Stephen Rust in gratitude for their ability to inspire students to use writing as a tool for expression and change.

Social Media: @ellistessellis on Instagram

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About the Contributor
Selene Lawrence
Selene Lawrence, Student Correspondent
Selene Lawrence (she/they) is PRISM’s student correspondent and online editorial assistant. She is an author, poet, musician, and visual and textile artist. Selene is pursuing a major of her own design: Traditional, Folkloric, and Popular Cultural Studies for Mass Media Communications with a writing minor.

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