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The idea of souls being brought back from their eternal slumber and displaying skulls and skeletons may seem odd to the average onlooker - creepy even, but in Mexican culture it represents honor, remembrance and pride.

The Day of the Dead began with the Mexica culture said Rita Flores de Wallace, a self-professed artisan. The Mexicas, which made part of the Aztecs saw death as a process of life and those who died simply moved on to another stage.

"Sometimes people don't understand that we as Mexicans see death as a process to a new life," said Marcela De la Mar, executive director of the Mexican Cultural Center.

The Aztecs, who ruled most of Mexico and other parts of Central America before the Spanish conquest, would honor their dead by carrying out various rituals.

The Mexican Cultural Center and the Consulate General of Mexico are hosting a   Día de Muertos  exhibition at their Denver offices, 5350 Leetsdale Drive.
The Mexican Cultural Center and the Consulate General of Mexico are hosting a Día de Muertos exhibition at their Denver offices, 5350 Leetsdale Drive. This is the altar dedicated to Frida Kahlo. The exhibit will run through November 5th 2012. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post.)

During this time they believed their loved ones would come back to drink, eat and be merry a tradition that it is still kept today, said De la Mar.

"Death is the beginning of a new life, death is not the ending, you may leave this world but that doesn't mean you leave our hearts and it is our tradition," she said.

With the arrivals of the Spanish conquest the Day of the Dead had some transformations due to the mix between the indigenous cultures and the Catholic religion's Day of All Saints, which gave the celebration its Nov. 1 and 2 dates.

The first day is strictly for those who died at a young age, with a more somber atmosphere, though it is said that all the young souls instantly become angels. The second day the adult souls join the celebration, said De la Mar.


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The mix between cultures also added crosses to the symbology and imagery of saints including the Virgin of Guadalupe, a favorite.

"When the Spanish came the first thing they placed was a cross," Flores de Wallace said.

In Mexico and increasingly in the U.S., the celebration includes making altars to those who have passed away. At the Mexican Cultural Center in the Mexican Consulate, De la Mar, Wallace, Adrian Marban and their staff created a colorful display of altars.

The altars included many of the staples of the celebration like the famous female skeleton known as "La Catrina," a creation by cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada to mock the high society though it has inspired into a day of the dead staple. 

At the center, the room was filled with colorful patterned paper or "papel picado" strung all around to signify the wind that brings the spirits back on this date, said Wallace. Candles are lit to guide the souls back to earth so they can join in the celebration.

The combination gave way to a colorful setting- far from terrifying- and a glimpse into a culture that sees death in a positive manner.

The altars usually include items of significance particularly the deceased's favorite food and drinks because it is believed that the souls have a long journey to travel on that day and will need them to complete it.

Crystal O'Brien, executive of the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council (CHAC), built an altar to remember Carlos Martinez, the former executive director. In his altar she included his photograph, candles with the virgin of Guadalupe, candy and a can of Coca-Cola.

"Carlos loved Coca-Cola, he loved candy and he was a diabetic, so he would hide it," O'Brien explained.

"We swear he comes here every year because we get this fat squirrel in the back and we are sure it is him."

The celebration has become more popular over the years in places like Denver as the Latino population grows. However, O'Brien said, many times the holiday is mistakenly represented as something scary sad or morbid.

"You remember those that have passed and you're celebrating their life and it is sad in a way, but yet it's happy," O'Brien said. "It's kind of hard to explain, but it is like a balance."

Despite the growth of the celebration for some it continues to have a important meaning.

Amanda Ceja, who participated in the Aztec ritual and celebration of the Day of the Dead at CHAC, said the holiday is very important to her because it represents her culture and the importance of remembering loved ones. 

"I believe it is sacred," Ceja said. "I don't believe it is a myth or a legend, I do believe the souls come on that day to celebrate with us."

Ceja, who was sporting an intricate skull make up, brought her daughters so they could learn about their culture even if they have never lived in Mexico.

"I want my daughters to be exposed," she said. "Our home is completely decorated with calacas (skulls)."
O'Brien said that in order to preserve the importance of the date at her organization they try to make every moment educational.

"We really try to focus on the educational piece of it," she said. "Before we do our sugar skulls, we give them the history of sugar skulls."

O'Brien said she has a mission to educate people and teach them the real meaning of the Day of the Dead - a mission she shares with colleagues around Denver.

"I think it is very important to keep the Mexican traditions alive and share them with other people, I think that there is something so enriching about Mexican culture," De la Mar said.