While some draw comparisons between Halloween and Día de Muertos, the reality is that the two celebrations have little in common. Halloween – a day associated with ghouls and goblins – tends to take a scary and dark tone. Día de Muertos/Difuntos, however, is a joyous holiday where families across Latin America and the United States come together to celebrate the lives, legacies, and souls of those who have passed.
People across Latin America believe that each year on November 1 and 2, the dead roam the earth to visit their families. In Mexico, in particular, people build altars or ofrendas to guide the souls of their loved ones back home. Decorated with their pictures, candles, highly scented flowers like cempasúchil, pan de muerto (their favorite food), and even tequila, the ofrendas feature items that the visitors like and things intended to make them happy upon their return.
For this year’s Día de Muertos, we have put together 10 digital ofrendas to honor activists and cultural figures who broke barriers:
Berta Cáceres, a member of the Lenca indigenous group in Honduras, relentlessly fought for her community. Her activism led to her winning the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2015. She worked to stop Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA) from building a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River – a project expected to upend the lives of the Lenca indigenous group.
On March 3, a group of gunmen barged into the indigenous environmentalist’s home and killed her. “She fought because she believed in the fight,” Berta’s daughter, Laura Zuniga Cáceres, told Remezcla. “And she believed in needing to believe in things. That you need to support the world. Because of that, I am also part of this movement and part of [Consejo Cívivo de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras].”
Cáceres’ family is still awaiting justice, but their fight continues. That’s why the words “Berta vive vive, la lucha sigue sigue” have become a rallying cry.
The Mirabal Sisters
On November 25, 1960, the Mirabal sisters – three sisters involved in a clandestine political movement against brutal Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo – were assassinated.
Rafael Trujillo’s decades of power were marked by kidnappings, torture, and assassinations. The sisters – Patria, Minerva and María Teresa – were fearless activists who defied the regime, secretly handing out pamphlets detailing Trujillo’s abuses, and mobilizing DR’s middle class against him. The sisters became known as Las Mariposas.
In 1960, the government sentenced them to three years in prison, but mounting international pressure forced Trujillo to free them. The sisters were murdered three months after their release, something Trujillo considered a victory. However, their murders became his downfall.
Rubén Salazar was a highly-esteemed journalist who wrote for the Los Angeles Times throughout the 1960s, serving first as a beat reporter then heading the Mexico City bureau of the rapidly expanding newspaper. Upon returning to Los Angeles in the late 60s, he became involved in the nascent Chicano movement and focused his reporting on the struggles of the Mexican-American communities previously ignored or disparaged by mainstream media. Harassed by local authorities and frequently scolded by his more mainstream Mexican-American readership, Salazar eventually left the Times to focus his energies on the newly created KMEX Spanish-language TV station.
On August 29, 1970, the day of the infamous National Chicano Moratorium March in East L.A., Ruben Salazar was struck dead by a tear gas canister fired blindly into an unassuming cantina where the journalist had sought refuge from the chaos unfolding in the street.
Sylvia Rivera, along with her close friend and fellow trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, played an important role in the fight for LGBTQ rights in the latter half of the twentieth century. Rivera, whose father was Puerto Rican and mother was Venezuelan, advocated for the rights of trans people and POCs within the gay community. She’s believed to have flung one of the first bottles at police during Stonewall.
Rivera, who lived on the streets in her youth, took young trans children under her wing. She started two organizations, which she funded through her sex work, to keep the children from struggling. She spent some decades out of the spotlight, but made a comeback ’90s. She died in 2002 in her 50s from liver cancer.
María Félix is Mexico’s most glamorous star. The fierce first lady of Mexican cinema came to prominence during the country’s Época de Oro. Over the course of 30-plus years, the Sonora-born María de los Ángeles Félix Güereña starred in dozens of features and television series, and went on to become a veritable icon of Mexican culture.
Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente made history as the first Latino to reach 3,000 hits. One year later, he was the first Latino inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won many important recognitions in his field, but he also distinguished through his humanitarian work. In 1972, he died en route to Nicaragua to aid in earthquake relief efforts.
Pedro Zamora first came into the spotlight as a housemate on MTV’s Real World, but he’s most remembered for his activism. As an openly gay man with HIV, the Cuban man brought much-needed awareness to HIV and AIDS at a time when information was severely lacking. At age 17, he learned that he was HIV positive, and he began to speak out about the importance of protection.
He also went on to fight for those with HIV and AIDS. In July 1993, he told Congress, “If you want to reach me as a young gay man, and especially a young gay man of color, then you need to give me information in a vocabulary I can understand and relate to.”
Zamora died the following year at the age of 22.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is as well known for his writing as his politics. The author got his start as a journalist. Though he didn’t invent magical realism, he used it in a way that no one had before. He set many of his stories in or near Macondo, a fictional town in Colombia.
He wrote his opus 100 Years of Solitude in 1965 after four years of struggling with his fiction writing. Driving to Acapulco, he became inspired and over the course of the next 18 months, he wrote the novel, which would go on to change his life and define his work.
He won the Nobel Prize in 1982 and when he spoke at the ceremony, he shared his unfiltered thoughts. “[Europeans] insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest for our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them,” he said.
Gabo died in 2014 at the age 87 in Mexico City.
Paulo Freire, best known for his 1970 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, dedicated his life to helping those from low-income Brazilian communities. Beginning in the late 1950s, he promoted literacy campaigns in northeast Brazil, until eventually he was “known worldwide for his advocacy of education for ‘critical consciousness,” though not universally celebrated for his work.
He became Sao Paolo’s education secretary in 1989, and he continued to employ his controversial methods. “We want to create schools where questioning is not a sin,” he said. “It’s no sin to make a critical study of Brazil’s reality. A small percentage own land. Most people don’t.”
Though he became famous around the world, he was jailed in 1964 after a right-wing military coup. He spent 15 years in exile. Freire lived in Geneva, but also set up literacy programs in Chile, Nicaragua, and some African countries. His methods were also adopted by Latino and African American organizations in the United States. He died in 1997 at the age of 75.
Elena Verdugo brought one of the first nuanced characters to TV. As Consuelo Lopez on Marcus Welby, M.D., she portrayed one of the first Latina professionals on TV. She appeared in every episode of the show and was nominated for two Emmys for her performance. By the end of the show, she was as popular as her co-stars Robert Young and James Brolin.