What is Dia de los Muertos? Chef Marcela Valladolid shares how she celebrates this post-Halloween occasion

Katarina Vasquez
·3-min read
Marcela Valladolid lights a candle on her ofrenda, or altar. (Photo: Cecilia Martin Del Campo)
Marcela Valladolid lights a candle on her ofrenda, or altar. (Photo: Cecilia Martin Del Campo)

It’s Hallo-weekend in the U.S., and although celebrations will be different this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, people are gearing up to safely enjoy the first of 2020’s holiday festivities. Halloween is actually celebrated by several countries across the world, from Ireland to Italy.

But one occasion that often gets confused with All Hallows Eve is Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, which falls on Nov. 1 and 2 and has Mexican roots.

The sentiment behind the spooky-sounding holiday is actually a poignant one: to celebrate the lives of lost loved ones, honored by survivors who build intricate altars, called ofrendas, which feature everything from food items, candles, colorful handmade decor and photos of those who have died. Many people believe that these altars guide the souls of the deceased back to Earth, allowing them to visit their family and friends for the night.

The tradition is believed to have originated in Mexico by the Aztecs over 3,000 years ago, and has continued to evolve since Spanish rule in the 16th century. “The Aztecs saw death as the beginning of life, where they were to actually carry out their true purpose, that’s why death was celebrated,” chef Marcela Valladolid tells Yahoo Life of her favorite holiday. “It is a beautiful reminder for me and my children of all the rich and incredible history we carry and need to pass on,” the former star of Food Network’s Mexican Made Easy continues. That’s why she dedicates weeks of time and effort each year to build her own ofrenda, honoring her mother, who passed away in 2008.

The ofrenda features a photo of Valladolid's mother, who passed away in 2008, as a young girl. (Photo: Cecilia Martin Del Campo)
The ofrenda features a photo of Valladolid's mother, who passed away in 2008, as a young girl. (Photo: Cecilia Martin Del Campo)

Throughout the year, Valladolid’s San Diego home showcases a variety of increasingly intricate tablescapes, but none as special as this one. For Dia de los Muertos, the table is filled with artisan decor sourced directly from Oaxaca, Mexico. From clay skulls, or calaveras, and candles to delicate paper banners and bright orange marigolds, each item on the ofrenda represents a deeper meaning.

Explore Valladolid’s ofrenda through the experience below.

Although Dia de los Muertos is often confused with Halloween by many in the U.S., it has been depicted in popular culture through the years, including in Disney Pixar’s Coco. Valladolid says she’s no stranger to misconceptions about the holiday, and recalls her disappointment in seeing stereotypical Dia de los Muertos decorations and costumes lining the shelves of party supply stores.

“It saddens me that those items are barely covering the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what the tradition actually means,” she says. In a time in which cultural appropriation is increasingly called out, Valladolid urges people to do “a simple Google search” to better understand the culture behind the occasion before using it as a costume. “We’re all collectively going through the process of both learning and unlearning what is right and wrong with regards to other people’s (and even our own!) cultures,” she says.

Valladolid places a plate of tamales on the table in front of her ofrenda. (Photo: Cecilia Martin Del Campo)
Valladolid places a plate of tamales on the table in front of her ofrenda. (Photo: Cecilia Martin Del Campo)

Bottom line: Dia de los Muertos is a joyous occasion with meaning that extends beyond sugar skulls and colorful decor. As Valladolid stresses, “There is no wrong way to honor a loved one who has passed.”

AR experience produced by Kat Vasquez.

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