The Day of the Dead festival in Mexico really was the main reason we wanted to visit this country first on our never-ending journey. There were quite a few reasons why Dia de los Muertos was a festival that we had always wanted to experience.
First, we both love all things skulls, and the darker things in life like old cemeteries, so a famous festival celebrating death itself was rather appealing. The fact that death is embraced so openly in Mexican culture has always been a bit of a mystery to us. Especially coming from a culture where death is considered frightening and hard to confront for most people.
Secondly, we love Halloween, and I mean love it. Even more so than Christmas or any other holiday for that matter. Back home in Colorado, we were known to throw large Halloween parties at our place, complete with games, costume parties and prizes, and good vibes all around. Day of the Dead really is the closest tradition in the world to our favorite holiday. It also has American Halloween beat by about 3,000 years of celebration.
Thirdly, and most importantly, we wanted to learn about Dia de los Muertos in it’s true form. We wanted to witness the festival in its full glory, in a place where the traditional roots run deep. We settled on Oaxaca City in southern Mexico, which we would travel to from Mexico City. Just before leaving for Oaxaca, we got lucky and were able to double dip on the festivities. We found out through other guests at our hostel that a huge Day of the Dead parade was going on downtown the day before our flight. Count us in!
THE FIRST EVER DIA DE LOS MUERTOS PARADE IN THE CITY
This is one of those things we love most about travel. You arrive in a place coincidentally and find out you’re there just in time to witness something truly amazing. We felt very lucky to witness the first ever Day of the Dead parade here especially, and made our way downtown early to find a good place to stand.
Since this was the first one ever though, everybody and their second cousin packed down along the streets. We waited for about two hours, and the crowds kept coming. Just when we thought we couldn’t take this family-friendly mosh pit any longer, the parade began. It exploded with color, traditional music, and demonstrations of Mayan culture. We were awestruck.
Though everyone had waited quite a long time for the show, the parade only lasted about 30 minutes. However, what it lacked in length it most definitely made up for in grandeur. Each costume looked like it had taken hours to put together. Cars made up like traditional altars rolled along the road, and sugar skull dancers twirled to the music. Some performers even glided along on roller skates. Getting pictures proved extremely difficult – everyone in the giant sea of onlookers had their hands high up, clutching their phones and cameras.
The most ironic thing about the parade was that it was inspired by the latest James Bond flick, Spectre. Yes, it is a fact. The city government and the tourism board themselves were inspired after seeing the opening scene, where Daniel Craig passes through a Day of the Dead festival parade that was filmed in the downtown historic district of Mexico City. In pursuit of his target, you can bet he was making use of that notorious James Bond swagger and blowing everything up in the process.
What’s funny about the scene (other than the ridiculous helicopter fight) is that there never had been a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City before, even though the tradition is deep rooted in Mexican culture. So, officials thought it would be a great opportunity to up the ante on their celebrations in the city. Many of the costumes and props used in the parade by the volunteers were in fact inspired by the movie, and resembled those used in the scene. There were also rumors that some of the props were originals used in the scene, but we couldn’t be sure.
As far as we were concerned, the reasoning behind the parade didn’t matter so much to us as just being there did. Especially since the tradition had been going on in the country for thousands of years already. Honestly, we could hardly believe it was only the first one. This turn of events is what we like to call a “serendipitous moment” – those times where things just happen to fall into place perfectly and make for an unforgettable experience.
THE CONTINUOUS FESTIVITIES IN OAXACA
Arriving in colorful Oaxaca was a breath of fresh air after being in the sprawling mass of Mexico City for a few days. We finally felt like we were experiencing the true culture of Mexico up front and in its purest state. The official Dia de los Muertos dates are November 1st through the 3rd, but the celebration carries on days before and after these dates. It truly is a constant fiesta.
The official first day of November 1st is traditionally known as Dia de los Inocentes, or the “Day of the Innocents”. This is like a children’s day, much like trick-or-treating in the states. However, children don’t trick-or-treat for candy here – they’re after the good stuff. They’re after pesos and any other goodies you’re willing to give, and will come right up and hold their plastic pumpkin buckets out to everyone they see.
Some kids put on small street performances in exchange for pesos, which were actually pretty hilarious. The most common was a Halloween-type charade acted out by children in masks. One kid playfully pretends to stab at their friend (laying on the ground playing dead) with plastic retractable knives. Towards the end of the night, the kids doing the stabbing become less and less enthused, and their stabbing motions become slower and lazier by the second. In combination with all the other cute costumed kids running around having a ball, this portion of the festival was family oriented and more relaxed.
Following the first of the month, firecrackers and loud festive music are constant throughout the city. The firecrackers used are like cherry bombs on steroids, and are extremely loud! We could always find the thick of the party just by listening. In the Oaxaca City central park and the surrounding streets, parades of mariachis and costumed locals erupt randomly, and everyone is welcome to join in the march through town. There’s also surreal reenactments of Mayan rituals, something we absolutely loved the chance to witness. The festivities go on well into the night, but we noticed it never really went on past 2:00 in the morning or so.
During the day, not much is going on while everyone sleeps it off, but the town is just as festive with its colorful decorations lining the streets and buildings displaying decorations both inside and out. Enthralling skeleton exhibits are around every corner. There’s plenty of booths set up selling the traditional textiles, street food, and handicrafts unique to Oaxaca. (Note: you must try the Oaxaca famous cheese.)
The Graveyard Tradition
Visiting the Oaxaca graveyard was completely eye opening, and the energy of the place was something that simply cannot be described accurately in any television show or news story about the festival. The positive feeling of celebration was ever so present throughout the tombs and memorials while a few families gathered around their loved ones’ graves.
It was nearly overwhelming how different it was compared to our own culturally-ingrained views on death. We walked through the cemetery solemnly and respectfully, and locals quietly sat on their loved one’s graves and conversed with each other. We could only assume the conversation revolved around the life lived by the deceased, and we even saw one family passing around a bottle of liquor and having lively conversations in front of their loved one’s tomb. Sometimes, we’d see the sad sight of just one elderly gentleman or lady sitting at a gravesite, perhaps the husband or the wife of the deceased.
Candle-lined altars decorated some of the graves, bursting with marigold bouquets that were especially captivating. We felt that this was a holiday of remembrance, of the lives the deceased person lived and who they were. We felt a deep respect and new outlook on the Mexican people and their amazing culture. Unfortunately, we didn’t stay more than an hour. We were a bit uncomfortable that some tourists were taking pictures of the family a bit too often. Though the families didn’t seem to mind much, it just felt awkward to us. At one point, we even saw and American film crew hovered around an older woman at a gravesite conducting an interview.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Our main realization at the Dia de los Muertos festival was that the celebration reflects (in our opinion) a much healthier view of death than we are used to back home. Rather than the death of a loved one putting someone into a melancholy state for possibly years on end, in Mexico the person’s life and their time on this earth seem to be the focus, not their death.
We did see a few people grieving in the graveyard, but it felt different. Death seemed celebrated with open arms, welcoming the prospect of life after death and paying homage to the person who has moved on. To us, it was a more proactive way to view something as dark as death. Perhaps this is why the Dia de los Muertos tradition is so appealing and interesting to the people of other cultures. It was a huge opportunity for revelations, and we loved being in the thick of it in Oaxaca.
“During the festival in the city, I had one of those moments in travel that force you to contemplate a situation much higher than yourself.”
In addition to the festival being a chance to remember loved ones, we also learned that Dia de los Muertos is just as much an opportunity for the living to commemorate people who have fallen victim to murders and other serious crimes in Mexico. During the festival in the city, I had one of those moments in travel that force you to contemplate a situation much higher than yourself. The hair stands up on the back of your neck, your eyes begin to water, and you can’t help but stop and take in the full scope of the moment around you. One altar, beautifully crafted from colored wood shavings and other material, stopped me in my tracks, and I felt deeply drawn to it. It compelled me to sit for several minutes and fully contemplate and appreciate its meaning.
In English, the altar reads, “We love you”. And in the descriptions on either side, it reads something like, “In memory of the victims of feminicide. 644 feminicides of this sex without punishment, 106 this year”. (Kindly excuse my translation skills.) A woman not too much older than me was tending to the candles, and Scott asked her if she had made the altar, and what the inscription meant.
She explained in English that she and several other women were part of an active group helping other women who were victims of violence, and they had all made the altar together. She said they made the altar in memory of all the women who had died under these circumstances, and to show respect and remembrance for each and every one of them. I felt such a high respect for her and such a deep respect for the memorial. Personally, it was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had in my life, and I will never forget it.
We realized that through experiencing the Dia de los Muertos festival and the culture of this beautiful country we were in, we had an immense amount of newfound respect for Mexican traditions and for the strength of the people. The women who made the altar and those that it commemorated were extremely strong in our eyes, and they have endeared a lot. We respected them to our very core.
Dia de los Muertos, in its entirety, was an experience for us that can never be forgotten and will always stand out in our memories. Not only because of the serendipitous moments, but for its symbolism. It left its mark on both of us, and we were extremely grateful for the chance to experience it in its most traditional form.