Day of the Dead

Having its roots at as early as 1800 BC, Day of the Dead, is a Mexican tradition to remember and honor the deceased on November 1 and 2. The Mass is the culmination of a week-long trek along the border for missionaries and migrant-rights activists.

About Operation Gatekeeper

In October 1994, the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched Operation Gatekeeper in an effort to move people away from the migration routes in the San Diego Area. This operation has called for the United States Government to dramatically increase the number of Border Patrol Agents in the San Diego sector and has given military assistance and resources to them. A wall has been constructed which begins in the Pacific Ocean and stretches for 14 miles.

Day of the Dead
US-Mexico Border.

The entire northern border of Tijuana is a wall. This strategy of militarization has moved people away from the popular suburban migration routes in the San Diego area and forced people into harsh and desolate areas. People who migrate to California must now attempt their crossing through the Imperial Desert or over the Mountains that are north of Tecate. Despite the hazards of extreme temperatures in the desert and mountains, people have not been deterred from trying to enter the United States to find work. Due to the increased militarization which has pushed these crossing routes into dangerous areas, the number of migrant deaths have increased, however, people are still crossing the border at the same rate. The death rate of the people who are migrating has risen over 600% since 1994. The rate of those who are apprehended by the INS has decreased less than 1% during the same period. In the last five years, over 1,500 people have died along the entire U.S./Mexico border, with nearly a third of these deaths occurring on the California/Baja California border.

Day of the Dead (AP/Eduardo Verdugo)
People partake in a mass separated at the U.S./Mexico border during Day of the Dead celebrations, November 2, 2004, in Anapra, State of Chihuahua, Mexico.
The event was in memory of the undocumented immigrants who have died while crossing the U.S./Mexico border.

In February 1999, a petition was filed with the Organization of American States. The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation are charging the U.S. Government with human rights violations pursuant to Operation Gatekeeper. They assert that, “…the United States has organized and implemented its immigration and border control policies in a way that has knowingly and ineluctably led to the deaths of an ever increasing number of immigrants seeking to enter the United States to obtain jobs or family reunification. Operation Gatekeeper has steered this flow of immigrants into the harshest, most unforgiving and most dangerous terrain on the California-Mexico border.”

The United Nations has also been requested to condemn Operation Gatekeeper. Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, visited the Tijuana border in November 1999, criticizing the U.S. policy and stated that Gatekeeper is, “deflecting people at risk to their lives when they decide to immigrate.” In March 2000, the U.S. section of Amnesty International passed a resolution recommending to its world-wide parent organization that “the deaths of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border be included” in its campaign to expose and prevent human rights violations by the U.S. government. Amnesty International-USA “does not take issue with the sovereign right of the United States to police its international borders, but insists that it do so in a manner which complies with its international human rights obligations.” The resolution goes on to say that the Gatekeeper strategy is an abuse of the right to control the border “in that it maximizes, rather than minimizes, the risk to life.”

On the Days of the Dead (1-2 November 1998), 340 crosses were displayed in Tijuana to honor the people who have died while attempting to cross the California border from Mexico since Operation Gatekeeper was initiated. The crosses were placed next to the border wall and stretched for one mile. In order to humanize the statistics most of the crosses were personalized with the name, age, and place of origin of the people who have died, however, over 100 crosses were inscribed “No Identificado,” for the dead who have never been identified. An altar was placed near the crosses in remembrance of the people who have died trying to migrate. In 1999, the crosses were again placed along the border wall from October 1 (the 5th anniversary of Operation Gatekeeper) through the Day of the Dead on November 2nd. An additional 111 people had died, raising the total number of crosses to 451.


About Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) Celebrations

The Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, a festival celebrating the reunion of dead relatives with their families, November 1st and 2nd.

Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead Dolls

Foreigners have more trouble understanding Los Dias de Los Muertos than any of Mexico’s other fiestas. At first glance, Day of the Dead decorations, colored paper garlands, little skeletons performing daily tasks and sugar skulls inscribed with names remind visitors of Halloween.

Many families honor their ancestors and dead with home altars, laden with harvest fruits, traditional bread with crossed bones on dough on top, all to greet the spirits as they return home for 24 hours each year. The graves and altars are prepared by the entire family, whose members bring the departed’s favorite food and drink. Candles are lit, the ancient incense copal is burned, prayers and chants for the dead are intoned and then drinks and food are consumed in a party/picnic-like atmosphere. At 6:00 pm, the bells begin to ring (every 30 seconds), summoning the dead. They ring throughout the night. At sunrise, the ringing stops and those relatives who have kept the night-long vigil, go home.

This holiday is a perfect example of the complex heritage of the Mexican people. The beliefs of today’s Mexican are based on the complicated blended cultures of his ancestors, the Aztec and Maya and Spanish invaders, layered with Catholicism. The origins of the Days of the Dead reach into the ancient history of Europe and Mexico. In the eighth century, the church decreed November 1 as All Saints Day. Setting aside the day to honor the martyrs and saints was an attempt to replace the 2000-year tradition of the Celts and their Druid priests who combined harvest festivals and celebrated the new year on November 1.

Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead Dolls

While it’s strange for most of us to accept the fact that “death” and “festivities” can go hand-in-hand, for most Mexicans, the two are intricately entwined. This all stems from the ancient indigenous peoples of Mexico (Purepecha, Nahua, Totonac and Otomí) who believed that the souls of the dead return each year to visit with their living relatives – to eat, drink and be merry. Just like they did when they were living.

Tempered somewhat by the arrival of the Spaniards in the 15th century, current practice calls for the deceased children (little angels) to be remembered on the previous day (November 1st, All Saints Day) with toys and colorful balloons adorning their graves. And the next day, All Souls Day, adults who have died are honored with displays of the departed’s favorite food and drinks, as well as ornamental and personal belongings. Flowers, particularly the zempasúchil (an Indian word for a special type of marigold) and candles, which are placed on the graves, are supposed to guide the spirits home to their loved ones.


Common Misconceptions About the Day of the Dead Celebrations

El Dia de los Muertos
El Dia de los Muertos

– It is not the Mexican version of Halloween. Mexicans have celebrated the Day of the Dead since the year 1800 B.C.
– It is not scary or morbid. There are no images of dead people, ghosts, witches, or the devil.
– It is not a cult. This ritual has nothing to do with cults. It is a Catholic Christian ritual intermixed with folk culture. Going to mass is an essential aspect of this celebration.
– It doesn’t honor death, but our dead relatives. We welcome the opportunity to reflect upon our lives, our heritage, our ancestors and the meaning and purpose of our own existence.
– Altars or ofrendas are not for worshiping but for offering our love and remembering our departed family members.
– It is not a sad ritual. It’s a day of happiness because we will be remembering our loved ones. Although when in the graveyard, people assume an introspective attitude. It is about Love not Fear.
– It is not a “strange” ritual. It is very similar to going to a grave and leaving flowers or stuffed animals, lighting a candle to remember the defunct.
– It is not a careless or fearless confrontation of death. It is a moment to reflect upon one’s life and the cycle of life and death.