Day Of The Dead: From The Other Side


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Photo essay by Aliya Alwi. Article by Adriana Medina.

[Editor’s Note: While many celebrated  “Día de Muertos” by painting their faces and boozing it up in the aftermath of Halloween’s debauchery, the significance behind the tradition goes beyond the cultural appropriation we have witnessed in such cities as New York, London, and even Cairo. In some ways, it seemed like an excuse to continue the festivities from the night before. Yet, the tradition has long outlived its various appropriations throughout history and continues to be practiced as an indigenous ritual in Latin America where homage is paid to those who have passed away, whether by resurrecting their memory through dance as seen in Toronto, or from Quito’s cemeteries where families share their long-lost loved ones’ favorite dishes. Here we offer a more nuanced reflection on what “Day of the Dead” is with a photo essay by Aliya Alwi exploring the phenomenon in Quito along with a dispatch from Adriana Medina, who took part in the tradition in Toronto, away from Colombia, her home country.]

“Pray for the souls of those who have left the earthly world but with the belief that they will be in a better place, no pain, no sorrow, nuestros muerticos.”

In that way, Mexican writer María del Carmen described “Day of the Dead”, one of the most important celebrations in Latin American culture. This celebration occurs in countries like Mexico, Ecuador, and Guatemala, and includes elements of syncretism and indigenismo (indigenous traditions), bringing together the color, feelings, and traditions of the local communities from which it arises.

Far from their countries, Latin Americans enjoyed this feast in chilly Toronto, where Mexicans served as the hosts. With a ceremony of thanks and remembrance along with an Aztec Indian dance (a traditional Mexican dance) around one of the “Altars of the Dead”,  they shared their deep devotion to the past by not forgetting the teachings of their ancestors and by remaining true to their cultural heritage despite distance and time.

“This celebration is for us, almost like a national holiday,” explained Miguel, one of the dancers who has resided in Canada for over 10 years.

Celebrating from a distance is not an easy task but the hosts managed to pull off an artistic gamble featuring wacky humor and other witty elements in between moments of music, rancheras, and traditional dances from Michoacan, in order to recreate the arrival of “La Llorona” (The Weeping), or as she is more commonly known: death. Her presence is deemed to be more than symbolic as she arrives to take the deceased. With these theatrical shows, the hosts are able to share with spectators from various countries, as well as future generations, that death should not bring sadness, because the past is a better place where the deceased also continue to receive the affection of their loved ones and families.

This affection is expressed in different ways, hence the importance of “Altars of the Dead”, which are the start of a series of floral motifs, particularly with yellow flowers that attract the dead’s gaze by their smell, while accompanied by the preferred cuisine of the deceased, such as the “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead), which is offered on every altar. Photographs of the deceased, candles, skulls, and other figures of various indigenous peoples and traditions in Mexico are also used in this observation of the holiday in Toronto.

An additional tradition, which seeks to re-read the so-called “Trick or Treat” Halloween in Anglo countries, is the call for children to request “one calaverita” (a small skull) during these days of celebration. This is a skull-shaped container that is made from cardboard or other materials. This tradition has managed to leave an impression on the children of Central American families who were born or reside in Canada and the United States, where the commercial prevalence of Halloween has left behind the symbolism of the skull and gave prevalence to the pumpkin.

However, there are other practices to honor the dead such as children and adults painting their faces to represent death, which are considered a sort of offering to “La Llorona”. All the while there is the uncertainty of when she will arrive, but for sure her day will come.


Aliya began her career as a translator for Egyptian state media radio but left the role during the January 2011 revolution after witnessing the violent suppression firsthand and being asked to broadcast plainly untrue information. Alwi then began working on a freelance basis for English-language outlets like Al-Jazeera English, The Guardian, and many others. She covered violent unrest during military crackdowns in Cairo, chaotic elections in Alexandria, and the aftermath of the Port Said football massacre. She produced the first English-language interviews with army defectors and Islamist leaders like Aboud al-Zumour, convicted mastermind of the the 1981 assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. She was arrested during her coverage of the general strike in Mahalla in 2012, and along with her husband and fellow ImportantCool associate, Austin Mackell, spent six months fighting charges of “incitement” brought against the pair and their colleagues by the military government.

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