Connecting to the Day of the Dead Through the Virtual World

Nikki Diefenbach

Melissa Carrillo is the Director of New Media Technology at the Smithsonian Latino Center. Using immersive technologies, she has created a whole new way to experience the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, at the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum.

On November 1st and 2nd, Día de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico. Ofrendas (offerings) are made to the spirits of loved ones and left at their graves or on altars made at home. The origins are Pre-Columbian; Aztecs also gave offerings to their deceased ancestors. With colonization and the spread of Catholicism, these practices were blended into Christianity, resulting in a deeply religious blended tradition that has spread to other Latin American countries and into Latinx communities across the US as well.

In the early stages of the virtual museum in 2010, Carrillo took her skills in cultural anthropology to hold virtual events in Second Life for Día de los Muertos, where avatars could participate in virtual celebrations. Partnering with the University of Texas in El Paso, they built a town square where people could meet and also a cemetery in Second Life with live programming and live streaming events that were collaborative and participatory. This created a unique cultural experience for every visitor, allowing them to build altars and share their own stories.

Today, Día de los Muertos faces commercialization and commoditization, and Carrillo’s goal is to find ways to use the virtual world to preserve cultural heritage. In the Latino Virtual Museum, Carrillo utilizes different types of media which are shared and promoted across social platforms, experimenting to discover which mediums work best for building community and expressing cultural identity. She understands that creating an immersive experience means more than just recreating spaces and reciting facts to virtual visitors.

Carrillo has created spaces across Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and Tumblr for people to share stories, recipes, pictures of makeshift home altars and tattoos unique to Día de los Muertos. Throughout all of this, Carrillo is careful to emphasize that all of the information provided is coming from the curatorial team who ensures it is accurate and not misrepresented. After that, it is up to the visitors to discover the virtual spaces on their own, interactively.

Through Carrillo and their partners, the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum is using technologies and creating a whole new way to curate exhibits and tell stories. There is great potential here for experiencing Día de los Muertos in a way that rewrites how cultural literacy is preserved in the virtual world.

Read more HERE.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. Why is it important to preserve the cultural literacy around Día de los Muertos?

Q2. How is Día de los Muertos unique to Mexican culture?

Q3. How is Día de los Muertos different from Halloween?