I wanted to share some history about one of my favorite cultural traditions in Mexico: Dia de los Muertos. In English you may know it as Day of the Dead. In 2003 UNESECO distinguished Day of the Dead as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage list because of the cultural wealth in this tradition. This is a tradition worth learning about, so I put together some info for you.
First off, Dia de los Muertos is not “Mexico’s Halloween.” The two day celebration of death (and life) is not just about dressing up and painting your face. So if you’re looking to travel to Mexico for Day of the Dead I urge you to at the very least understand what the tradition is about.
When is Day of the Dead?
This is a two day celebration that usually spans over three days. The official holiday is November 1st and 2nd. Since October 31st is Halloween, festivities usually start on this day. Most people stay awake through the 31st to celebrate into the early hours of November 1st. Midnight is when the holiday technically begins. November 1st is dedicated to the souls of children, and the 2nd for adults.
Celebrating the deceased dates back thousands of years to the Aztecs and many other indigenous cultures in Latin America. The Mesoamerican people believed mourning death was actually disrespectful. According to their beliefs death was just another part of the life cycle and a new beginning for the deceased. In the ninth month of the Aztec calendar (early August) the Aztecs celebrated the deceased and worshiped Mictecacíhuatl, ”lady of the dead.” Worshipping the queen of death was said to grant you her help in the realms of the afterlife. Today Santa Muerte (the lady of holy death in folk Catholicism) is similarly worshiped for protection and safe delivery to the afterlife.
In the 1500s Spaniards began converting the indigenous people of Mexico to Catholicism. They eliminated what was originally a month long celebration of death during August. The Mesoamerican people were instead granted two days that aligned with the Catholic holidays All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. Today the celebration is a blend of both Catholic & Mesoamerican traditions.
Day of the Dead Traditions
Ofrenda means offering in Spanish. An Ofrenda is a table of gifts for the deceased found in family homes and at gravesites. The Ofrenda is made up of multiple tiers often with an arch above, this represents the portal from the underworld to our current dimension.
On the Ofrenda you’ll find:
Favorite food and drinks of the loved one
Favorite toys if it’s a child
Pan de Muertos (a sugary pastry), represents soil and bones
Candles to light the way for the soul to find their way
Papel Picado represent the wind and the fragile link between life and death
Salt cleanses the spirit and purifies the soul
Alcohol to toast the arrivals. Usually spirits made from agave: Pulque, Mezcal, Racilla, or Tequila
Copal and incense to ward off evil spirits
Dog sculptures to guide the way
Marigolds for their familiar scent
A place for Reflection
Most Ofrendas on display in public are purely decorative while offerings in cemeteries or inside homes are more personalized. The personalized alters aren’t designed just for looks, it’s a place of reflection to honor relatives. Day of the dead are two days dedicated to passing down memorable stories so that no one ever says “I never knew anything about my abuelo.”
Looking at an Ofrenda you can piece together who the person was when they were alive. Musician’s Ofrendas are decorated with instruments, maybe old records. Paintbrushes for artists, books for writers. It has to make you wonder, what things will represent you when you’re gone?
I think it’s so healthy and beautiful to dedicate time to honoring late family members. I’ve made an Ofrenda of my own for my family and it was very cathartic. It felt more healthy than trying to pretend like it never happened. Getting through pain and grief requires so much acceptance.
Calaveras/ Sugar Skulls
Calaveras are representations of human skulls displayed to remind us that death is always present. Calaveras are displayed everywhere during Day of the Dead. You’ll see them as decorative art, sugar skull candy, and of course with face painting.
Sugar Skulls are made from a mix of granulated sugar pressed into molds. After the mold sets the candy skull is decorated with icing. Not all sugar skulls are edible so make sure they’re okay to eat if you’d like to try one. The tradition of sugar art, even creating massive sculptures from sugar, dates back centuries in Europe. It’s said that the Catholic friars taught Mexicans how to create art with inexpensive ingredients they had plenty of: sugar.
Catrina Costumes and Make Up
“Todos somos Calaveras” We are all skeletons.
In the early 1900’s Latin American print illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada created the original Catrina alongside a satire piece in a newspaper. The article was written about Mexican natives ashamed of their indigenous culture. During this time period many Mexicans were imitating European fashion, especially people in power whom were becoming obsessed with wealth. The article was calling out political corruption and pointed out that we all look the same in the end regardless of class, which inspired Catrina. Catrina was and is a political statement. The print art depicted a skeleton with a fancy hat like the wealthy were wearing. The name comes from the slang Catrin which meant rich man or woman.
Diego Rivera brings La Calavera Catrina to Life
The real popularity of Catrina came later when thee Diego Rivera painted her into the center of his famous mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central). He built upon the original character by adding fancy clothing and a serpent feather boa. In the mural Catrina is seen holding her creator Jose Guadalupe Posada’s arm and Rivera’s hand. The mural is located in Mexico City, you should definitely check it out if you ever visit.
La Calavera Catrina is widely seen as the symbol of Dia de los Muertos today which makes perfect sense. Catrina not only represents that we are all the same, she also symbolizes the Aztec queen of the underworld whom these traditions began for.
Most pueblos in Mexico will offer face painting in the centro plaza. Cost usually starts around 600 pesos and can be up to 2000 pesos with added jewels and accessories. There’s almost always a long line, I recommend getting it done early in the day.
Flor de Muertos
Cempasúchil, known as Marigolds in English, are a very symbolic flower throughout Mexican culture. Most Ofrendas are decorated with them because the particular floral scent is said to guide the deceased to their offerings. The name is derived from the Nahautl language and means “flower with many petals.” The bright flower is native to Mexico and Central America and can sprout over a meter high.
Cempasúchil are in full bloom after the rainy season making the end of October the perfect time to find the beautiful orange and yellow flowers throughout Mexico. Cempasúchil also have healing purposes that were used widely in indigenous medicine. Tea made with the petals and stems is said to help with stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and intestinal parasites.
Fun fact: I have three Cempasúchil flowers tattooed on my shoulder. They represent my dad, uncle and cousin that passed away.
Tapetes de Aserrín (Dyed Sawdust Carpets)
This is a tradition brought over from Spain. Some parts of Mexico put more emphasis on the carpets than others, these are also seen widely throughout Central America. Tapetes de Aserrín are made by dying sawdust, filling handmade stencils with different colors, then misting the design with water to let it set. Today a lot of artists prefer to use biodegradable materials like grass, sand, and flower petals instead of sawdust. Tuxtepec, a pueblo in Oaxaca, holds a large contest yearly during Day of the Dead.
Most communities put together floats and compete for the most creative design. Local marching bands, horse riding clubs, and classic car collectors also sport their best Catrine make up. In 2019 I attended the parade on the malecon in Puerto Vallarta. The setting was incredible with the ocean sunset backdrop, such an awesome experience.
Day of the Dead in Sayulita
Last year (2020) there were not public celebrations for the holiday in Sayulita or Puerto Vallarta due to the pandemic. Unfortunately there will not be any big events this year (2021) either. From what I have been informed there will not be a parade or festivities in the square or cemetery. The bars are currently open in Sayulita so there will surely be parties for the holiday, and Halloween, but it will not be the traditional experience.
Usually spaces in the Sayulita plaza are rented out each year to local families. This offers the opportunity to display the creativity and love put into building a family Ofrenda. There’s also a community parade with floats that goes though the centro. Street are closed and a stage is built for live music and dancing from Nayarit performers. Of course there are street vendors with all sorts of food and deserts to snack on.
At midnight between October 31st and November 1st the community walks with candles from the plaza to the cemetery. A mariachi leads the crowd and everyone is greeted with fireworks and music. In the cemetery a stage is set up for the mariachi band, music and dancing go into early hours of the morning. Again, I don’t believe this will be happening in 2021.
“Day of the Dead celebrates life, its fragility, its complexity but, at its core, it is a celebration of hope for humanity.” –Oscar Torres-Reyna
Day of the Dead is a holiday that I hold of great importance, even though I am not Mexican. I have lost important people in my life, like everyone has or will; for me it’s vital that I take the time to remember and honor them.
If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive in the history and traditions of Day of the Dead, here is a great documentary.