Mexico City is preparing for its big Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) festival on October 31 after a one-year hiatus. We have the route, date, history, and traditions for you!
Despite its name — Dia de Los Muertos — hinting more at loss and sadness, the annual Day of the Dead parade, scheduled for October 31, is a celebration of life. This year, organizers want to cover a longer route than usual starting at the Plaza de la Constitución, also known as the Zócalo, traveling through Reforma until reaching the Campo Marte facilities. All-day long, visitors can participate in workshops and activities all around the route of the parade.
But what exactly is the Day of the Dead? Contrary to popular belief it’s not a Mexican Halloween.
The roots of the Day of the Dead celebrations
Mexico City manages the incredible feat of being both the oldest capital city in the Americas and having an economy the same size as Peru. Founded in 1325 by the Aztecs, it expanded over the next 200 years to engulf the surrounding settlements until, in 1521, it was destroyed by the invading Spanish, who then decided to rebuild the city almost as it was, with the minor alteration of replacing all of the Aztec temples with Catholic churches.
Ah, religion. However, it is for a religious (of-sorts) festival, that Mexico grew increasingly famous to the outside world.
The Day of the Dead, also known as Dia de Los Muertos, dates back almost 3,000 years and was originally a month-long celebration during what a modern-day calendar would define as August. It was only during the 20th century that the festival took on the form it currently takes, that of honoring the death of infants on 1 November, followed by adults the next day.
So, when researching this article, I thought there must be a load of information about the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. I’ve seen SPECTRE! I’ve seen James Bond fight with a chap in a helicopter over thousands of people parading below in elaborate costumes! It looks great.
Big party in Mexico City
However, and not for the first time, James Bond lied to me. I really should learn to stop trusting him.
For it turns out that, although they do acknowledge the celebrations in the capital, it seems it’s far more likely you’ll see the spiritual side in smaller towns and villages. Mexico City uses it as an excuse for a party; there are face painting and costumes, static displays of sculpture (giant skulls and so forth), and displays of dance and art, all centered around the Plaza de la Constitución (the huge public square also known as the Zócalo).
Calavera Catrina, the poster girl for the Day of the Dead
Calavera Catrina is the poster girl for the Day of the Dead celebrations. Originally had nothing to do with the festival, she was a satirical character created by Mexican illustrator and printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada. The character is a skeleton that harks back to the original Aztec art of the region, dressed in early 20th century women’s fashions.
It was a jab at the upper-classes who were seen as trying too hard to adopt bourgeois European fashions and ideas in pre-revolutionary Mexico. The 1948 work ‘Sueño de Una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central’ by Diego Rivera cemented the character in Mexico’s popular consciousness.
It is now her that is the most apparent character if you look around, the poignant political undertones of an elite ignoring the plight of the downtrodden matching perfectly with the date.
Day of the Dead traditions
Traditionally, the festival revolves around making altars for the departed to be taken to the graveyards and cemeteries. Graves will be cleaned and covered in the altars, which will include favorite foods and drinks of the deceased, as well as toys for children, and blankets and pillows to aid the sleep of the dead.
In smaller towns, people will spend all night with their families next to the graves of their loved ones. So, it is out of the city we shall venture, to the small community of San Andres Mixquic, approximately 50 kilometers south-east of the city center.
This is a well-known place for Day of the Dead celebrations and, as night falls, the lights of thousands upon thousands of colorful candles flicker and light up the church and the graveyard that surrounds it. The smell of incense fills the air, as well as the smell of food.
Due to its relative proximity to Mexico City itself, this has become a place of modern pilgrimage for locals and tourists alike, with all of the trappings that that brings with it. The reverence of the churchyard is at odds with the smell of the grilling tortillas and the sounds of the mariachi bands playing outside. There is also the odd hard-line Catholic with a warning sign.
From Pagan ritual to pop-culture sensation
Many Catholics are very much against what they see as a Pagan ritual being embraced in a Catholic environment. In fact, even those who celebrate the Day of the Dead as a purely Mexican tradition are having to come to terms with its popularity and commercialization.
Since 2009, mounted police have been on duty in Mixquic during the festival, as well as large patrols of police on foot. That, coupled with the fencing off of certain areas, and restrictions on the sales of alcohol during certain times, is starting to reinforce the feeling that this is becoming an endeavor more for outsiders than locals.
Of course, this is just one of the many ways the festival is celebrated around the country. The traditions of each region vary, just as in the cities during recent years, children have taken to dressing up and going from house to house knocking on doors, or asking people on the street for sweets or money, similar to Halloween in the US and the UK.
The increasingly touristy nature of the festival, however, still doesn’t detract from what it is. Unusual though it may seem to European sensibilities to celebrate death, it is a time when families and friends come together to celebrate the lives of those that have gone before. A time of great joy and remembrance. And, of course, a time to celebrate everyone that you still have.
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