Some people confuse Day of the Dead celebrations with Halloween, but really, Dia de Muertos is about celebrating life. Intrepid local leader Luis explains what the tradition means to people in his homeland of Mexico.
The Aztecs used to believe that we had two deaths: one when our bodies stop moving, and the other when the people in our lives forgot about us. In Mexico, we celebrate the Day of the Dead – Dia de Muertos – at the start of each November to avoid that second death.
Ancient Mexican cultures didn’t understand the concept of ‘good and evil’. Everything was part of a cycle, and in death people would go ‘down’ – however this was not a sad situation, because ‘down’ is where life starts. It makes total sense: if you want to plant something, you have to put the seed down in the ground. So the underworld was a place full of all the people you loved who had passed away, waiting for you with their arms wide open.
Day of the Dead customs
Mexican people believe that on the Day of the Dead the gates to the realm of death open, and our beloved ones are able to visit us. Portrayed by a Hollywood director this would probably include zombie-like creatures and an evil Lord of the Undead, but it’s totally the opposite of what we believe.
In our homes we put up altars with the pictures of our loved ones who have passed away, and include some of the things they liked – an album with their favourite music, or their favourite meal and drink. It’s a moment when the ethereal get to enjoy the essence of the earthly, and since they are coming home to visit, we want them to feel welcome.
In the state of Morelos – where I’m from – Day of the Dead celebrations are quite a big thing. I used to go with my grandma to the graveyard to clean her father’s tomb and cover it with marigold flowers. She would talk to him in an endless monologue as if he were there in person, and maybe he was there in spirit, longing to hug her. It’s something we will never know in this life.
Celebrations around Mexico
There’s a town about an hour-and-a-half from Mexico City called Ocotepec. If you are visiting people will often open their homes to you, inviting you in for a cup of coffee, a rum and coke, or a tamal if you are willing to visit their altar and listen to stories about their deceased loved ones. All around Mexico you can visit graveyards and see the beautiful decorations; if you are lucky, perhaps a mariachi band will pass by, playing love songs to a wife who has passed away too soon. The whole country changes: sugar skull candy and decorations are everywhere, and people flock to the streets.
In Mexico City people visit the Panteon de Dolores to give gifts to their favourite celebrity like Diego Rivera; my favourite will always be the one of Tina Modoti (famous Italian photographer and Frida Kahlo’s lover). Arena Mexico hosts special events where wrestlers have to defend the world against the creatures of the underworld. These shows are bigger than usual, with lots of makeup and traditional dancing; otherwise you can check out special performances in the neighbourhood of Xochimilco remembering the most famous ghost in Mexico: ‘La Llorona’. Over in Oaxaca, locals parade with music and costumes and party all day, while in Morelia the entire city is covered with flowers.
Travelling during Day of the Dead
Sometimes people from other cultures confuse the Day of the Dead with Halloween. While in some ways they are similar, really they are very different – Dia de Muertos is all about celebrating life. It’s kind of like celebrating a million birthdays on the same day. We understand that this is exciting and you’ll probably want to document everything, but please remember to be respectful and to ask before you take pictures.
So if you’re in Mexico for Dia de Muertos, what should you do? Eat pan de muerto (a sweet bread made specially for the festival). Try pumpkin candy, buy skull candy with your name on it (and some for your friends as a gift), get dressed up, enjoy a parade, and take tonnes of pictures. But never forget that on this day we are celebrating our loved ones – we are celebrating life and enjoying the colours that won’t shine on the other side, but mostly we are sending love to those who can’t be here to celebrate our achievements, to give us advice when we fall or share a cup of wine with us every weekend.
We are saying to those people: “We haven’t forgotten you.”
Want to experience El Dia de los Muertos with a local leader like Luis? Check out Intrepid’s special 5-day Day of the Dead trip in Mexico City, or take a look at our full range of Mexico small group tours.
Feature image c/o Raymundo Penazola. All other images c/o Luis Raul Sotres Mirazo.