In 2016, Mexico City held its first ever Day of the Dead parade—and it’s grown to be a celebration visitors should not miss. Giant floats, colorfully costumed entertainers, and beautifully painted skeletons, also known as catrinas, dance through the streets. The parade stretches from the Estela de Luz (Pillar of Light) monument to the city’s main square, and each block of the parade is lined by joyful spectators joining in on the fun.
In Michoacán, the Day of the Dead celebrations are a legacy that comes from the region’s original inhabitants, the Purépecha. One of the main attractions that fills the streets and alleys of Michoacán during the celebration is the food. Some of the must-try cuisines are poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and capeados (covered with egg) and the traditional sweet bread bathed in sugar known as pan de muerto. The famous pan de muerto can be eaten for breakfast or as dessert, and is round in shape to represent the circle of life.
San Luis Potosí
The indigenous people of La Huasteca Potosina celebrate all aspects of the Day of the Dead tradition, which they know as Xantolo. Xantolo includes all the classic celebrations: marigolds, sugar skulls, elaborate altars and skeleton decorations. But Xantolo in this region also includes festive, day-long parties in the town square starting in late October and running to early November. In this area it is also common for locals to organize and create “welcome arches” that include various offerings for visitors traveling through.
In early November, the city of Guanajuato attracts thousands of tourists to a monumental altar located at the University of Guanajuato. Students of the University with the help of locals build and create this dazzling altar to commemorate their illustrious academic figures. For photo-enthusiasts, the altar becomes a photograph worthy of sharing with the world when night falls and the candles surrounding the altar are lit.
In Oaxaca, families commemorate the deceased by making altars covered with family photos, decorative skulls, and the food and drink of their loved ones. They also decorate the altars with cempasúchil, or the “flower of the dead”, which holds great symbolic value in Mexico. During the night, visitors should plan to take a tour of the main pantheon of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán. It’s the perfect opportunity to live and experience this beautiful tradition first-hand among the tombs, altars, music and colors
Aguascalientes stretches its Day of the Dead celebrations to nearly a week during its Festival de Calaveras or “Festival of Skulls”. At night in early November, the “Legends of Mexico” traditional skeleton parade is held. Spectators can watch as costumed revelers make their way through the downtown streets alongside floats vividly decorated for the occasion. The crowds will stop to gawk, but then quickly join the celebration to rejoice in life right beside one another.
The Nahuas are the largest indigenous village people in Mexico, representing 40% of the indigenous population of the state of Guerrero. The celebration for the dead begins in early October, with prayers and church bells ringing as the early morning sun rises. What’s unique about the towns in Guerrero is that they celebrate the deceased with a dance that they inherited from their ancestors of African origin. It is called “the dance of the devils” and consists of dancers jumping and stomping through the streets of Cuajinicuilapa.
For Yucatán, there is one special dish that’s essential to the Day of the Dead celebration. It’s a traditional food that’s delicious, but requires a lot of work given the complexity of the recipe. So much so, that in most cases, every member of the family joins in to help cook. We are talking about the mucbipollo, also known as “pib”. This beloved traditional meal includes chicken or pork mixed with various spices and corn dough. It is then wrapped in banana tree leaves and buried in a fire pit where it will cook. Once the pib is done it will be removed from the ground and served, a symbol to start the celebrations.
In Veracruz, the Day of the Dead celebration is said to be more important than Christmas, since the preparations, meals and decorations are made with much more anticipation and dedication. The region takes a week-long period solely dedicated to preparing for Día de los Muertos. Families then gather in their homes, or flock to the graveyards, to honor the yearly return of the souls of their relatives.
Habitants of the town of Pomuch in Campeche have a long history with the Day of the Dead. One tradition that’s been active for centuries is the annual ritual of “bone-washing”, where families wash the tombs and clean the bones of their deceased. After the cleaning they keep the ossuaries, or the box where the bones are deposited, open so the skulls and bones receive sun and air, as dictated by tradition. Relatives also arrange, paint and adorn the ossuaries and cover them with an embroidered white tablecloth bearing the name of the deceased.
The Yaqui and Mayo indigenous groups that are settled in southern Sonora are among the few ethnic groups that perform month-long rituals celebrating the Day of the Dead. Both groups begin the installation of their altars using mesquite and reed branches for the base, then add offerings like flowers, food, photos and candles on top. One of the peculiarities of these altars is their height. These altars are built to be tall, almost shoulder height, as they believe the dead no longer touch the ground, but rather, glide through the air.
BONUS FEATURE: The Life and History of La Catrina
José Guadalupe Posada is an Aguascalientes icon and one of Mexico’s most important popular artists. He was born in the state’s namesake capital in 1852 and died in a Mexico City tenement, in the poor neighborhood called Tepito, in 1913. It comes as a surprise to most that he drew only one catrina (a Spanish term now used to describe the figure of an elegantly dressed female skeleton). The artwork was titled “Catrina garbancera” (loosely, “The She-Dandy Garbanzo-Vendor”) and his skeleton iconography is now synonymous with Mexico and its Day of the Dead celebrations.