In the vibrant, bustling Mercado de San Juan in Mexico City, I saw all the usual produce that I’d pick up at home — apples, raspberries, blueberries — along with exotic fruits I’d never seen before — creamy mameys and spiky guanabanas. As I made my way through the crowd, the edible merchandise was soon superseded by plastic skeletons hanging from the ceiling, skull-shaped cake molds, and bolts of fabric covered with yet more skeletons.
But there was something playful about the skeletons; they were jovial and having a good time.
The city was preparing for one of its most beloved celebrations, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. I had only a vague understanding of the holiday and had always found it a little bit creepy. Come to find out, it is a heartwarming occasion that allows the living to honor the circle of life in a positive way.
Sometimes, our biggest fear is that we will be forgotten. This three-day holiday celebrates those who have passed on and ensures that their spirits will be remembered into the future. As a friend explained, it is when “us superstitious Mexicans allow the dead back into our lives and let them return to celebrate with us.”
Modern Day of the Dead festivities can be traced to a traditional Aztec festival that existed long before the Spanish came to Mexico and introduced Catholicism. The Aztecs considered hell to be the portion of life spent on Earth, and viewed death as a liberation of spirit. As one tour guide explained it: “Of course, people cried because of the separation, but they also believed they were going to paradise.”
One Sunday, I explored Madre Selva (“our mother jungle”), the vast flower market in Mexico City’s oldest area, Xochimilco. It was bursting with color and life — a place where representatives from the most beautiful restaurants and hotels in Mexico City rub shoulders with locals to get their flowers. When I was there, the traditional Day of the Dead flower, the cempazuchitl, or Mexican marigold, was the star of the market and a ubiquitous sight around the city as the beginning of the festival neared.
Day of the Dead celebrations vary greatly throughout Mexico, but generally speaking, November 2, the Day of the Dead, marks the climax of a three-day festival that begins on All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween. The intervening day, November 1, is known as Dia de Los Angelitos, and is reserved for remembering young children and babies who have died.
Typical Dia de los Muertos celebrations involve an altar, or ofrenda, that is built at home and set with the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks. Revelers flood local cemeteries to decorate graves with flowers and colored paper. Some even spend the night. As one of my guides told me: “You feel that [cemeteries are] a place where the dead are, but at that moment it comes back alive. It is a truly remarkable feeling.”
Victoria Campos at the delightful Four Seasons Mexico City told me that the biggest and most beautiful Day of the Dead celebrations take place in Patzcuaro, in the Mexican state of Michoacán. She also revealed that certain cities or states are known for traditional dishes made especially for the holiday. For example in Mérida, in the Yucatan, locals make mucbipollo, something Campos described as “a large chicken tamale pie,” to mark the occasion.
Campos also told me about a lighter, funnier side to Day of the Dead festivities meant to poke fun at the living. Many people have taken to writing calaveras (literally translated to skulls), or short poems meant to roast (poke fun in a good way) the subject, often ending with a reference to when the La Catrina or a calaca — each symbolizing death — will come for them.
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“La Catrina,” an elegant female skeleton wearing a plumed hat, is a more recent symbol for the holiday, but one of its most prominent. While the figure dates back to Aztec times, La Catrina was introduced to popular culture as a comment on Mexico’s upper class in the early 1900s by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada and grew in popularity after appearing in Diego Rivera’s famous 1948 mural, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda.” Here, the message is obvious: Rich or poor, at the end of our lives, we are all bones.
Throughout the time I spent in Mexico, I realized that Dia de los Muertos serves an important dual function. In addition to providing a way to remember the dead, it also helps the living deal with the inevitability that their lives, too, will run their course. As my tour guide said: “The only guarantee in life is that we will die. We shouldn’t be afraid.”
Back at the market, and in bakeries around Mexico City, I spotted pan de muertos (bread of the dead), a soft, sweet roll adorned with skulls or bones. If you find yourself in Mexico, pick up a loaf to celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed — and the life you have in front of you.