There are skulls and skeletons, costumes and sweets, but it's no Halloween. The purpose and traditions behind the Latin American Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, are quite different.

Día de los Muertos is an elaborate celebration of the lives of family and friends who have died. The celebration typically lasts two days, with the spirits of children celebrated on November 1 and those of adults on November 2.

On these days, folklore says the spirits of those who have passed return to Earth to celebrate the day with their loved ones.

"Just because Grandma and Grandpa died 50 years ago doesn't mean they don't continue to live on," says Denise Lugo, an art lecturer at California State University Channel Islands. "In your own conscious state, they continue to exist."

And that's what makes Día de los Muertos unique, continues Lugo.  "Our culture believes that our ancestors and elders continue to live within you. It is a very beautiful celebration of life."

So while skeletons are typically regarded as a sign of death in American culture, images of skulls serve as reminders of life and a call for remembrance on Día de los Muertos.

The two-day holiday is celebrated in countries throughout Latin America, but its origins are in Mexico, stemming from Aztec rituals dating back nearly 3,000 years.   

In recent years, Día de los Muertos has steadily been gaining popularity throughout the U.S., and especially in California. Lugo would like to see a better understanding of the meaning behind the celebration. "It is not something evil or scary," Lugo stresses.

'Becoming One in Celebration'

Today, November 1, Lugo will lead CSU Channel Islands' 9th annual Día de los Muertos celebration, taking place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on campus in front of John Spoor Broome Library.

Every year, she looks forward to the campus's celebratory event; it's an opportunity for students of various majors, backgrounds and ages to come together with campus faculty and staff, as well as the neighboring community.

Leading up to the event, groups work on customary sand paintings, which serve as vibrant tapestries for the altars built for the deceased. These altars -– some elaborate, others simple -– hold the food, drink and items the dead person loved in life.

"The art creates a sense of solidarity between all students," explains Lugo. "We are coming together and celebrating these individuals who meant so much to us. It is such a great and wonderful feeling."


​​​Día de los Muertos: Nine Terms to Know

Altar: A key component of any Día de los Muertos celebration. Photos, flowers, candles, papier mâché, skeleton imagery, food and drinks typically adorn the altar, which may be set up in a home or in public.

Calaveras: Images of skulls are a sign of life and rebirth in Latin American culture. Oftentimes, pan dulce (sweet bread) and sugar blocks are made in the shape of skulls in celebration and remembrance of life.

Face painting: Skulls and flowers are often painted on faces. White represents spirit, hope and purity; yellow represents unity with the soul who has passed; and gold is used for remembrance.

Flores de cempasúchil: African marigolds are the iconic gold-colored flowers associated with Día de los Muertos. In Mexico, this flower is known as the "flower of the dead."

Ofrendas: Translated literally, the Spanish word means "offers." When family and friends gather to celebrate a loved one, they bring the deceased person's favorite foods, drinks, items, photos and more and place them as offerings at the altar.

Papel picado: These colorful papier mâché cutouts add a zest of festivity to the altar or space. Sometimes the paper can be made into art that resembles flowers, such as the flores de cempaúschil (see above).

Pan de muertos: Translated literally as "bread of the dead," this food is a type of pan dulce, or sweet bread.

Petates: These spreads made from flowers, straw, palm leaves, fabric, or sand art are used as a tapestry for the altars.

Sand paintings: This art form mimics the ancient, traditional Día de los Muertos paintings originating from Oaxaca, Mexico. The paintings are typically comprised of sawdust, wet sand and powdered tempera paint.