News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why marigolds, or cempasúchil, are the iconic flower of Día de los Muertos

This Día de los Muertos altar on display at a public shrine in Oaxaca, Mexico, shows several traditional <em>ofrendas</em>, including <em>cempasúchil --</em> the Aztec name of the marigold flower native to Mexico.
This Día de los Muertos altar on display at a public shrine in Oaxaca, Mexico, shows several traditional <em>ofrendas</em>, including <em>cempasúchil --</em> the Aztec name of the marigold flower native to Mexico.

The musky smell of marigolds, or cempasúchil, were thick throughout Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles on Saturday, and Angie Jimenez couldn't wait for it.

"I love that smell and I love that it just hangs in the air," she told NPR.

Jimenez is the altar coordinator for the cemetery's annual Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, festival and oversees the installations of ofrendas put together by families commemorating their deceased loved ones.

This year, because of COVID-19, that means limiting the number of altars from over 100 to just 80. Still, Jimenez expects that will include thousands of the vibrant orange flowers, whose pungent scent comes from their leaves and stem.

"An altar just isn't complete without them. And if you believe what the Aztecs believed, then your ancestors need the scent to find their way back to you," she said. She'll be adding a couple dozen flowers to a personal family altar for her father and sister, who are interred at the cemetery.

"Our cempasúchil display will be small by comparison," she said, noting that some of the larger altars can include thick, carefully woven garlands of the flowers measuring 50 feet or more, draped over elaborate altar structures.

"I'm sure some will have thousands of flowers and when you walk up to them, Boom! The smell will just hit you in the face," Jimenez said, laughing.

"You either love it or hate it because it's like nothing else. Lucky for me, I love it."

This image depicts how Día de los Muertos is observed and celebrated. Deceased individuals are remembered with the placement of flowers and candles at their cemeteries.
Gabriel Perez / Getty Images
This image depicts how Día de los Muertos is observed and celebrated. Deceased individuals are remembered with the placement of flowers and candles at their cemeteries.

The origins of Día de los Muertos, which begins on Nov. 1 and ends on Nov. 2, stretches back centuries in Mexico and to a lesser extent a few other Latin American countries.

It's deeply rooted in pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals tied to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, or the Lady of the Dead, who allowed spirits to travel back to earth to commune with family members. That tradition was blended with the Roman Catholic observance of All Saints Day by the Spaniards when they conquered Mexico.

The celebration involves the creation of an altar with offerings that include photos of the dead, candles, bottles of mezcal and tequila, and food, sugar skulls, and the cempasúchil — the Aztec name of the marigold flower native to Mexico.

The fragrance of the bright orange and yellow flowers is said to lead souls from their burial place to their family homes. The cheerful hues also add to the celebratory nature of the holiday, which, although it's wrapped up in death, is not somber but festive.

Bob Mellano, a vice president of Mellano & Co., one of California's largest flower farms, says the company has greatly expanded its production and harvest of marigolds due to growing demand in recent years.
Sergio Mendoza Hochmann / Getty Images
Bob Mellano, a vice president of Mellano & Co., one of California's largest flower farms, says the company has greatly expanded its production and harvest of marigolds due to growing demand in recent years.

Over the years, the appeal of the marigolds at this time of year has spread well beyond the Latino market.

"They're definitely an item that is growing in demand that's for sure," Bob Mellano, vice president of wholesale operations for Mellano & Co., one of California's largest flower farms, told NPR.

"And this is about the only time of year that marigolds are produced [in the U.S.] because of the demand from the Day of the Dead."

He noted the family-run business, which farms 450 acres, has greatly increased its production of marigolds in recent years. "That has to do with the growing Hispanic and Mexican population here," and he suspects the arrival of Día de los Muertos in popular culture.

"I'm not sure where it started but maybe there's a correlation to the Disney movie from a few years ago," he speculated, referring to Disney Pixar's 2017 Coco. The animated film, set in Mexico during the country's Día de los Muertos, was an international box office smash and introduced audiences around the world to the holiday and its customs.

"That could be why you see marigolds everywhere now. Before they were more a specialty item and you'd only see them for a short time," Mellano said. As soon as Oct. 1 rolls around, he said, "they're a must have for wholesalers, flower shops and even grocery stores."

Mellano said it's not unlike the explosion in popularity of the poinsettia during Christmas. "If you go back 50 years and see where that poinsettia consumption was, it was nothing compared to what the poinsettia consumption is now," he said.

Andi Xoch, founder and owner of Latinx With Plants in East Los Angeles, said the growing popularity of the holiday has made it "easier for young Latinx or brown people who are first or second generation to accept their heritage and be and be proud."
Magally Miranda / Latinx With Plants
Andi Xoch, founder and owner of Latinx With Plants in East Los Angeles, said the growing popularity of the holiday has made it "easier for young Latinx or brown people who are first or second generation to accept their heritage and be and be proud."

Andi Xoch, founder of Latinx With Plants in East Los Angeles, told NPR she is concerned about the commercialization and the borderline or sometimes outright cultural appropriation of what was once an indigenous holiday. But there is an upside, she said.

Because it's become part of mainstream culture, "It's become easier for young Latinx or brown people who are first or second generation to accept their heritage and be proud," Xoch said.

Whereas growing up she saw many of her peers reject more indigenous aspects of Latino culture in an attempt to assimilate, now, she says, they are embracing it.

"Just in the last few weeks, a lot of my clients coming in for marigolds, who are mostly young Latinx women, told me this is the first time they are celebrating Día de los Muertos. So they're now adopting this tradition and just owning it and I'll take that any day," Xoch said.

People visit a community altar decorated with marigolds at Grand Park in Los Angeles. Mother and daughter Chicana artists Ofelia and Rosanna Esparza have overseen the design of the altar at Grand Park since 2013. It's one of 11 huge altars done in a collaboration between Grand Park and Self Help Graphics, an organization highlighting Chicano and Latino artists and social justice.
Damian Dovarganes / AP
People visit a community altar decorated with marigolds at Grand Park in Los Angeles. Mother and daughter Chicana artists Ofelia and Rosanna Esparza have overseen the design of the altar at Grand Park since 2013. It's one of 11 huge altars done in a collaboration between Grand Park and Self Help Graphics, an organization highlighting Chicano and Latino artists and social justice.

Cempasúchil displays are also a very non-offensive and appropriate way for anyone to participate in the festivities, she added.

"You know, people who are not Latinx walk a fine line of cultural appropriation." It is tempting, she said, for white people to paint their faces in the style of a calavera or dress up in a Catrina costume.

"But that tradition doesn't belong to them no matter how cool or commercialized it gets. And once it becomes a trend it's no longer being appreciated or respected," Xoch said.

But flowers, especially ones resembling the golden hues of sunshine, are always appropriate.

"They are beautiful way to remember someone who's gone and they're cheerful, so it adds that element of beauty in death, too," Xoch said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.