El Dia de Los Muertos: an unforgettable Mexican experience

Traveling to any city in Mexico for the Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration is a once-in-a-lifetime experience but the discovery of another culture's way of dealing with death will leave a lasting impact on every traveler. Read on for all the info on traveling to San Miguel de Allende for the Dia De Los Muertos celebrations.

La Catrina or "The Lady of the Dead" Photo by Rachel Sommer 2018

The Dia de Los Muertos celebration is to honor the life of loved ones who have passed. Death is generally not a taboo subject in Mexico the way it is in most western cultures, death is seen as a part of life. It is believed that a person never really dies until their name is spoken for the last time. Thus, Dia de Los Muertos is a time for families to welcome back their deceased relatives and friends for a brief reunion of dancing, music, food, drinks, and happiness.


The holiday is celebrated each year from November 1-2. November 1 is “El Dia de Los Innocents,” or the day of the children, and All Saints Day. November 2 is All Souls Day or the Day of the Dead. According to tradition, the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours. The spirits of adults can do the same on November 2.

Sugar Skull I Photo by Rachel Sommer 2018

History

Dia de Los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, is a celebration of the lives of those that have passed. It is not a somber or morbid occasion but a celebration of life when family and friends come together to honor their lost loved ones. Ancient Mesoamericans believed that death was part of the journey of life. They believed that new life came from death, rather than death being an ending to life. It is important to note that while the two holidays are close together, Dia de Los Muertos is not Halloween. Halloween has ancient Celtic roots, while Day of the Dead has its own origins that date back to the Indigenous people of Mexico and Central America. However, as time goes on and cultures collide Halloween festivities are becoming more popular in Mexico: costumes are sold alongside sugar skulls and some children dress up and go trick-or-treating ("Pedir Muertos").


Dia de Los Muertos has been a day of remembrance since before the arrival of the Spanish. In fact, before Spanish colonization, Dia de Los Muertos was celebrated in the summertime for two entire months. It wasn’t until the Spanish had to figure out how to make this holiday a little more, well, Christian, that it was moved to the same dates as what many people know to be All Souls Day – November 1st.


Ofrendas

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Lighting candles on the ofrenda as seen in the Disney movie, Coco.


To beckon spirits back into the Land of the Living for the festivities, revelers create makeshift altars, or ofrendas, at their homes and at the gravesites of their deceased loved ones. Families gather at the site to eat, dance, play music, tell stories of their loved ones, and even clean the graves.


Offerings to the dead are inspired by the four elements

Ofrendas are decorated with offerings for the spirits are meant to represent the four elements: fire, water, earth, and wind.

  • Fire: Candles are lit to help guide the spirits' journey.

  • Water: Pitchers of water are left to quench their thirst while traveling to the Land of the Living.

  • Earth: A variety of traditional foods are prepared to help nourish the dead.

  • Wind: Papel Picado are vibrant delicate paper banners. They're decorated with elaborate cut-out patterns and strung up. They are said to allow souls to pass through.


Many things can go on the ofrendas such as hand-made toys, sugar skulls, fruit, corn, and marigolds. Common to most altars are alcohol, tobacco, and soda — because the spirits are coming back to party. Often placed upon the altars are relics from the loved ones' life such as photos and mementos.

Fun Fact: Altars are not just made for family members but also friends, famous people, and event pets!

Inmigrantes en Busca Del Sueño Americano

On my trip in 2018, there was an altar dedicated to the journalists murdered in Mexico. There was a typewriter, notepad, and other tools of the trade. Written in salt it says, "Inmigrantes en Busca Del Sueño Americano," which translates to, "Immigrants in search of the American Dream."


A statement from PEN reads," Mexico is among the deadliest countries in the world for journalists. Since 2004, more than 90 journalists have been assassinated. Eleven more have disappeared. More than 90% of killings remain unpunished.


Since 1921, PEN has empowered an international community of writers fighting for freedom of expression. Spread the word and join the fight against impunity."


You can find more information on their website at, www.sinmiguelPEN.com


Party in the Cemeteries

Don't be afraid of the cemeteries. In some communities, it is customary to spend the entire night in the cemetery, and people make a party of it, having a picnic supper, playing music, talking, and drinking through the night. The Cemetery of Our Lady Guadalupe is where the party is in San Miguel de Allende. The cemetery is packed with bands playing, decorations, and people drinking and celebrating their loved ones. There were also "Digital Altar," projections. Just outside the cemetery walls, there is an entire street of ornate atars leading to a stage where dance performances were hosted.


Skeletons as Satire? History of the Calaveras

One of the most prominent symbols of the holiday—the signature skull face—originated from a Mexican illustrator. Around 1910 Jose Guadalupe Posada created a satirical lithograph offering commentary on the political and societal unrest of the times; particularly the elite's tendency to adopt Eurocentric customs. Posada dubbed her La Catrina, which is a slang word for "the rich." La Calavera Catrina means elegant skull.


Later, in 1947, Diego Rivera depicted an elaborately dressed La Catrina in his celebrated mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon.

Nowadays you can see this imagery everywhere from decorative face paint, costumes, to sugary treats. It is an international symbol for the holiday.


Can tourists dress up?

The thing is, the tradition started as the poor and working-class mocking the upper class with their fancy clothes and lack of soul. So it could be seen as ironic/meta to some when rich (relative to the Mexican poor) white people dress up. However, there is a difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation and the general consensus in San Miguel de Allende is that it's fine to dress up and wear face paint and that locals enjoy seeing foreigners wearing these kinds of costumes and joining in the celebrations. Don't do the makeup yourself, pay a local artist on the street to do the make-up for you and buy the dress from a local seller - you're contributing to a local enterprise that way. The streets leading into the main square are lined with artist-vendors waiting to do you up!


Festival La Calaca

Festival La Calaca (The Skull Festival) is a somewhat new initiative that runs alongside the traditional celebrations of Dia de Los Muertos. This production includes Digital Altar projections, Seminars, Photo opportunities, and night-long music festivals with DJs, art installations, and more. The music festival was held at the stunning Ranchito Cascabeles Timmyland. Which is an indescribable place and totally with a day visit on its own. Inspired by the work of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain, American immigrant Tim Sullivan created his own surrealist fantasyland just 20 minutes north of San Miguel de Allende. It is truly a magical place that needs to be seen to be believed. There are many tours that will take you to the private property so you can explore its wonder.







Travelers etiquette

  • Respect is number one. While this is a festival and visitors are welcome it is still a day of remembrance for locals' lost loved ones. Be considerate.

  • While photography is common, always discretely ask permission before taking closer shots, especially of graves and ofrendas.

  • Dia de Los Muertos is NOT Halloween, on the 31st you will find some Halloween-themed parties, usually full of ex-pats and tourists, and it's fine to dress up for those but for the actual festival leave your costume behind. Some children dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating ("pedir Muertos") Be prepared to give them candy or pesos!

  • Wearing flowers and face painting is part of the celebration and foreigners are welcome to participate- just make sure to get your facepaint done by a local artist.

  • Many people simply celebrate the Day of the Dead at home behind closed doors where they have built or bought their own shrines to commemorate their loved ones. However, if you are looking for the most public place for celebrations, you’ll find those at local cemeteries and around the public Jardin again respect is key.







Fun fact: Mexico City did not have a festival for Dia de Los Muertos until tourists saw the James Bond movie Spectre and arrived looking for one! The city began putting on a festival for Dia De Los Muertos following this incident, however, I would head to other locations if you are looking for a more authentic celebration.

Where to Visit

San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato are the two cities I visited to celebrate. San Miguel de Allende is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is dubbed as a Mexican Disneyland for tourists and ex-pats.

Guanajuato is a very tiny university town and has a special more low-key celebration. Now the holiday has taken on a slightly more commercial form, especially in Mexico City. If you want to experience Day of the Dead the way the more indigenous people still celebrate it, you’ll have to head to areas around Oaxaca or Chiapas.


Note: San Miguel de Allende has been an ex-pat town since WWII and a tourist destination for almost as long. Basically, the locals are accustomed to U.S. visitors and most people speak at least a little English. So, the etiquette rules in this Day of the Dead guide to San Miguel may not apply if you’re heading to a less-traveled area of Mexico. Every town does it a little differently.

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Pro-Tip: Wear appropriate footwear! Skip the heels and make sure your shoes have some tread on the bottom. The stone streets are very slippery and you will inevitably run into some unpaved/broken sidewalks.

Staying Safe

As a woman traveling solo or with friends safety is always important. A few key things to remember are:

  • Leave flashy jewelry at home pickpocketing is not as common here as in other places but does happen

  • Skip the revealing clothing, no need to invite unwanted attention

  • Don't walk alone at night or if you do stick to the main streets, there are a lot of alleyways in San Miguel and Guanajuato if you find that you must go down one to get to your location try to do so quickly or ask a group if you can walk with them

  • Don't spend too much time loitering in or around Mercado Hildago as it is a known place for sex workers and it's very possible that men will approach you.

  • Always have a decoy wallet; this is where you have the primary wallet that you keep in your luggage or hotel safe and a smaller wallet that you take with you during the day. Only bring enough cash with you for your day and only one or no cards, this way if it gets stolen it's not a total loss. I take it a step further and hide money and cards in random places throughout my luggage so that if my primary wallet gets stolen from my luggage I'm not stuck.

Vocab

La Catrina: If you’ve ever seen pictures of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, you may be familiar with the image of a female skeleton wearing a big hat. The Catrina represents the “Lady of the Dead,” which was the goddess that the pre-Colombian people worshipped when these celebrations first began.

Ofrendas: Offrendas are basically Altars that are richly decorated with toys, marigolds, photos, sugar skulls, fruit, corn, and much more.

Calaveras: Sugar Skulls

Pan de Muerto or "Bread of the Dead", is a popular pastry sold in Mexican bakeries to celebrate the day. The bread is shaped into a skull and crossbones and is topped with sugar.

Cempasúchiles: or Marigolds are also known as, "Flor de Muerto," or flowers of the dead, the importance of the lively orange and yellow marigolds date back to the time of the Aztecs. The color and scent of the flowers are believed to lure spirits from their places of rest to their families.

Papel Picado: Vibrant paper banners decorated with elaborate cuts outs that are strung up and are said to allow the souls to pass through to the Land of the Living.




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*Heads up: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means I get a commission for visits at no cost to you.

**All photos in the post are from 2018.

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Hi! I’m Rachel, a Florida native, who left home in search of big adventures. I've traveled to 27 countries in 4 years and I'm here to share my best tips and travel hacks with you!

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