Skip to main content Accessibility help

Sugar, Colonialism, and Death: On the Origins of Mexico's Day of the Dead

  • Stanley Brandes (a1)

Mexico's most famous holiday is, without doubt, the Day of the Dead. At the end of October, large numbers of foreign visitors descend upon Mexico to witness colorful—some would say carnivalesque—ritual performances and artistic displays. Decorated breads, paper cutouts, and plastic toys, most of them humorously playing on the theme of death, are evident everywhere. Sculpted sugar candies in the form of skulls, skeletons, and caskets suggest an almost irreverent, macabre confrontation with mortality. During November 1 and November 2, Mexicans clean, decorate, and maintain vigil over the graves of relatives. Tombstones and burial sites are adorned with flowers, candles, and food, all aesthetically arranged in honor of the deceased. Some Mexicans claim that the souls of the departed watch over their living relatives during these few days. Negligent family members await punishment, whether on earth or in the afterlife. This belief is invoked throughout Mexico to explain the substantial time, money, and energy invested in the two-day ceremony.

Hide All
Aguirre Soronda, Antxon. 1989. “El fuego en el rito funerario vasco.” in La Religiosidad Popular, vol. 2 of Vida y Muerte: La Imaginatión Religiosa (Santaló, Carlos Alvarez. Rey, María Jesús Buxó y. and Becerra, Salvador Rodríguez. eds.). 344584. Barcelona: Anthropos.
Ajofrín, Francisco de. 1958. Diario del Viaje Que por Orden de la Sagrada Congregatión de Propaganda Fide Hizo a la America Septentrional en el Siglo XVIII, Alcover, Vicente Castañeda y, ed. Madrid: Real Academia de la Historia.
Alexiou, M. 1974. The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Amades, Joan. 1956. Costumari Catalá: El Curs de L'any, vol. V. Barcelona: Salvat.
Anonymous. 1756. Relatión de lo Acaecido en la Cuidad de Granada el día Primero de Noviembre de 1755. … México, D.F.: Biblioteca Mexicana.
Arora, Shirley. 1980. “To the Grave with the Dead. … ”: Ambivalence in a Spanish Proverb.” Fabula, 21: 3–4, 223–46.
Barrett, Ward J. 1976. “Morelos and its Sugar Industry in the Late Eighteenth Century,” in Provinces of Early Mexico: Variants of Spanish American Regional Evolution, (Altman, Ida and Lockhart, James, eds.). 6395. Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center Publications.
Barrett, Ward J. 1977. La Hacienda Azucarera de los Marqueses del Valle. México. D.F.: Siglo XXI.
Barrett, Ward J.; and Schwartz, Stuart B.. 1975. “Comparación entre dos economías azucareras coloniales: Morelos, México y Bahía, Brasil,” in Haciendas, Latifundios y Plantaciones en America, Florescano, Enrique, ed., 532–72. México, D.F.: Siglo XXI.
Bastien, Joseph. 1978. Mountain of the Condor. St. Paul: West.
Beidler, Lloyd M. 1975. “The Biological and Cultural Role of Sweeteners1,” in Sweeteners: Issues and Uncertainties, White, Robt. R., ed., 1118. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences.
Benavente, Fr. Toribio de [Motolonía]. 1951. History of the Indians of New Spain, Steck, Francis Borgia, trans. Washington, D.C.: American Academy of Franciscan History.
Bloch, Maurice. 1971. Plating the Dead: Tombs, Ancestral Villages, and Kinship Organisation in Madagascar. London: Seminar.
Brandes, Stanley. 1975. Migration, Kinship, and Community: Tradition and Transition in a Spanish Village. New York: Academic Press.
Brandes, Stanley. 1988. Power and Persuasion: Fiestas and Social Control in Rural Mexico. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Brodman, Barbara. 1976. The Mexican Cult of Death in Myth and Literature. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida.
Burga, Manuel. 1976. De la Encomienda a la Hacienda Capitalista: El Valle de Jequetepeque del Siglo XVI AL XX. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.
Buechler, Hans. 1980. The Masked Media: Fiestas and Social Interaction in the Bolivian Highlands. The Hague: Mouton.
Burkhart, Louise M. 1989. The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Cantor, Sidney M. 1975. “Patterns of Use.” in Sweeteners: Issues and Uncertainties White, Robert R., ed., 1928. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences.
Carmichael, Elizabeth; and Sayer, Chloë. 1991. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Cases, Bartolomé de las. 1992. The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account, Briffault, Herma, trans. Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press.
Casas Gaspar, Enrique. 1947. Costumbres Españolas de Nacimiento, Noviazgo, Casamiento, y Muerte. Madrid: Escelicer.
Caso, Alfonso. 1953. El Pueblo del Sol. Mexico, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Childs, Robert V.; and Altman, Patricia B.. 1982. Vive Tu Recuerdo: Living Traditions in the Mexican Days of the Dead. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California at Los Angeles.
Cook, Sherbourne F; and Borah, Woodrow. 1979. Essays in Population History: Mexico and California, 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cornides, A. 1967. “All Souls' Day,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Covarrubias, Miguel. 1947. Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec. New York: Knopf.
Coy, P.E.B. 1988. “Dust Jacket Commentary.” for Todos Santos in Rural Tlaxcala, Nutini, Hugo. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Crocker, J. C. 1977. “The Mirrored Self: Identity and Ritual Inversion among the Eastern Bororo.” Ethnology, 16: 2, 129–45.
Curet, Francesc. 1953. Els Barcelonins: la Mort. vol. 3 of Visions Barcelonines, 1760–1860. Barcelona: Dalmau i Jover.
Díaz, , Guerrero, Rogelio. 1968. Estudios de Psicologia del Mexicano. Mexico, D.F.: F. Trillas.
Dunn, Richard S. 1972. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Durán, Diego. 1964. The Aztecs: The History of the Indies of New Spain, Heyden, Doris and Horcasitas, Fernando, trans. New York: Orion.
Epton, Nina. 1968. Spanish Fiestas. London: Cassell.
Espinosa, Aurelio M. 1918. “All-Souls Day at Zuñi, Acoma, and Laguna.” Journal of American Folklore, 31: 122, 550–2.
Fagg, John Edwin. 1965. Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Fergusson, Erna. 1934. Fiesta in Mexico. New York: A. A. Knopf.
Fernández Kelly, Patricia. 1974. “Death in Mexican Folk Culture.” American Quarterly. 25: 5, 516–35.
Florescano, Enrique, ed. 1975. Haciendas, Latifundias y Plantaciones en America Latina. Mexico, D.F.: Siglo XXI.
Foster, George M. 1960. Culture and Conquest: America's Spanish Heritage. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, no. 27. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation.
Furtado, Celso. 1977. “The Early Brazilian Sugar Economy,” in Haciendas and Plantations in Latin American History, (Keith, Robert G., ed.). 6371. New York: Holmes and Meier.
Gabriel, , Llompart, C. R. 1965. “Pan sobre la tumba.” Revista de Dialectología y Tradiciones Populares (Madrid), 11: 2, 96102.
Gaillard, Jacques. 1950. Catholicisme. Paris: Presse Catholique.
Gibson, Charles. 1964. The Aztecs under Spanish Ride: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico, 1519–1810. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Gonzales, Michael J. 1985. Plantation Agriculture and Social Control in Northern Peru, 1875–1933. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Gossen, , Gary, H.; and León-Portilla, Miguel, eds. 1993. South and Meso-American Native Spirituality. New York: Crossroad.
Haberstein, Robert W.; and Lamers, William M.. 1963. Funeral Customs the World Over. Milwaukee: Bultin.
Hertz, Robert. 1907. “Contribution à une étude sur la représentation collective de la mort.” Anné Sociologique, 10: 48137.
Hewes, , Gordon, W. 1954. “Mexicans in Search of the ‘Mexican’: Notes on Mexican National Character Studies.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 13:2, 209223.
Huerta, Maria Teresa. 1993. Empresarios del Azúcar en el Siglo XIX. México, D.F.: Instituto de Antropología e Historia.
Ingham, John M. 1986. Mary, Michael, and Lucifer: Folk Catholicism in Central Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Kinsbruner, Jay. 1987. Penny Capitalism in Spanish America: The Pulperos of Puebla, Mexico City, Caracas, and Buenos Aires. Boulder, CO: Westview.
de Alva, Klor, Jorge, J.. 1988. “Sahagún and the Birth of Modern Ethnology: Representing, Confessing, and Inscribing the Native Other,” in Klor de Alva, Nicholson, and Quiñones, , eds., The Works of Bernardino de Sahagún: Pioneer Ethnographer of Sixteenth-Century Aztec Mexico, 3152. Albany: State University of Albany, Institute for Mesoamerican Studies.
de Alva, Klor, Jorge, J.; Nicholson, H. B.; and Quiñones, Eloise, eds. 1988. “Introduction,” in The Works of Bernardino de Sahagún: Pioneer Ethnographer of Sixteenth-Century Aztec Mexico, 112. Albany: State University of New York at Albany, Institute for Mesoamerican Studies.
Laughlin, Robert M. 1969. “The Tzotzil,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vogt, Evon, ed.. vol. 7, 152–94. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Limón Rojas, Miguel. 1984. “The Concept of Death in Mexico.” Speech delivered on October 25, Museo Nacional de Artes e Industrias Populares, Instituto Nacional Indigenista. Excelsior, Nov. 2.
Lipp, Frank J. 1991. The Mixe of Oaxaca: Religion, Ritual, and Healing. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Llabrés Quintana, Gabriel. 1925. “Los penetets de mort.” Correo de Mallorca, October 1925.
Lockhart, James. 1992. The Nahuas after the Conquest. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Lopatin, I. 1960. The Cult of the Dead among the Natives of Amur Basin. The Hague: Mouton.
Blanch, Lope, Juan, M. 1963. Vocabulario Mexicano Relativo a la Muerte. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Centro de Estudios Literarios.
López-Austin, Alfredo. 1973. Hombre-Dios: Religion y Politico en al Mundo Nahuatl. Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Pinar, Lorenzo, Javier, Francisco. 1991. Muerte y Ritual en la Edad Moderna: El Caso de Zamora (1500–1800). Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca.
McNeill, William H. 1976. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Doubleday.
Mancera, Pablo. 1974. Las Plantaciones Azucareras en el Perú, 1821–1875. Lima: Biblioteca Andina.
Martin, Cheryl E. 1985. Rural Society in Colonial Morelos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Martínez Montiño, Francisco. 1778. Arte cle Cocina, Pasteleria. Vizcocheria, y Conservería. Madrid: Pantaleón Aznar.
Marzal, Manuel M. 1993a. “Transplanted Spanish Catholicism,” in South and Meso-American Native Spirituality. Gossen, Gary and León-Portilla, Miguel. eds., 140169. New York: Crossroad.
Marzal, Manuel M. 1993b. “The Tzeltal Maya-Christian Synthesis,” in South and Meso-American Native Spirituality, Gossen, Gary and León-Portilla, Miguel, eds., 228250. New-York: Crossroad.
Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking.
Mitchell, B. R. 1993. International Historical Statistics: The Americas. 1750–1988. New York: Stockton.
Mörner, Magnus. 1975. “En torno a las haciendas de la región del Cuzco desde el Siglo XVIII.” in Haciendas, Latifundios y Plantaciones en America Latina, Florescano, Enrique. ed., 346392. Mexico. D.F.: Siglo XXI.
Universitario, Museo. 19741975. La Muerte: Expresiones Mexicanas cle un Enigma. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: Directión General de Difusión Cultural.
Nutini, Hugo. 1988. Todos Santos in Rural Tlaxcala: A Syncretic, Expressive, Symbolic Analysis of the Cult of the Dead. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Zazueta, Ochoa, Angel, Jesús. 1976. La Muerte y Los Muertos: Culto, Servicio, Ofrenda y Humor de Una Comunidad. México, D.F.: Sep-Setentas.
Parsons, Elsie Clews. 1917. “All-Souls Day at Zuñi. Acoma, and Laguna.” Journal of American Folklore, 30: 118, 495–6.
Paz, Octavio. 1961. The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, Kemp, Lysander, trans. New York: Grove.
Poleszynski, Dag. 1982. Food, Social Cosmology, and Mental Health: The Case of Sugar. Tokyo: United Nations University.
Sahagún, Fr. Bernardino de. 1978. General History of the Things of New Spain, Codex, Florentine, translated by Anderson, Arthur and Dibble, Charles E.. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research.
Sandstrom, Alan R., and Sandstrom, Pamela Effrein. 1986. Traditional Papermaking and Paper Cult Figures of Mexico. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Scheffler, Lilian. 1976. “La celebración del día de muertos en San Juan Totalac. Tlaxcala.” Boletín del Departamento de Investigation de las Tradiciones Populares, 3: 91103.
Schcper-Hughes, Nancy. 1992. Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Smith, C. 1967. “Feast of All Saints.” in New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Super, John C. 1988. Food, Conquest and Colonization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Taylor, William B. 1976. “Town and country in the Valley of Oaxaca,” in Provinces of Early Mexico: Variants of Spanish American Regional Evolution, Altman, Ida and Lockhart, James. eds., 6395. Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center Publications.
United Nations. 1993. Statistical Yearbook for Latin America and the Caribbean: 1992 Edition. Santiago de Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Van Gennep, Arnold. 19471953. Manuel de Folklore Francois Contemporain vol. 1, Parts 3–6. Paris: A. Picard.
Vansittart, E.C. 1990. “All Souls' Day in Italy.” The Antiquary (London), 36: 326–30.
Viqueira, Juan-Pedro. 1984. “La Ilustración y las fiestas religiosas populares en la Ciudad de México (1730–1821).” Cuicuilco (Revista de la Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia), 14–15: 714.
Wolf, Eric: and Mintz, Sidney. 1977. “Haciendas and plantations.” in Haciendas and Plantations in Latin American History, Keith, Robert G., ed., 3662. New York: Holmes and Meier.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed