What's it's Like Celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico

Rene Cizio

Celebrating Day of the Dead in Puerto Vallarta brought an unfamiliar perspective to death for me. Celebrating death is not the American way. We mourn it, curse death for it takes from us. We rage against the very idea of it. But not in Mexico. Here, death is only a part of life.

I arrived in Puerto Vallarta on Oct. 30, just in time for the beginning of Dia de los Muertos or as we Americans call it: Day of the Dead.

Right away, I saw the ofrendas set up around town, alerting me that something was different here. The colorful altars were stacked high and filled with marigold flowers, bread and food, candles, and pictures of loved ones gone beyond. There were several elaborate ofrendas in the town square near my apartment. I looked at the pictures and listened as the families setting them up talked.

There wasn’t any overt sadness; not really. Their talk was around fun “remember when” stories about their deceased family members and friends. I wanted my family to be represented that way. It made me wonder if, instead of avoiding talking about loved ones who have died, we took pleasure in intentionally coming together to reminisce the good times? I liked that idea and I was sure I would enjoy the rest of the festivities too.

Dia de Los Muertos

The idea behind Day of the Dead is to encourage the souls to visit the living between the Autumnal Equinox and Winter Solstice when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest. It is during these days, the families communicate with the dead to ensure they've crossed over and aren't lingering in earthbound limbo, to honor their spirit, and to ensure they are happy. If they are happy or angry, the souls can bestow prosperity or misfortune accordingly in the coming year.

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I’d thought “day” of the dead was one day, but I was wrong. Depending on where it is, the festivities could take several days, but they always include the 1st and 2nd of November. In some places, like Puerto Vallarta, the festivities are intermingled with Halloween, so there is an entire week of celebrations.

  • Nov. 1 is Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the little angels). Also known as All Saints Day or “el Dia de los innocentes” "Day of the children).
  • Nov. 2 is Día de los Difuntos (Day of the deceased adults. Also known as All Souls Day or "Día de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead).

In 2008, UNESCO named the festivities as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, important to reinforcing the cultural and social status of the indigenous communities of Mexico. Since then, the festivities have grown around the world.

Cemeteries

During the festivities, families lay marigold flower petals, candles and other offerings at the cemetery. Many ofrendas are set up on the graves themselves. Often, a trail of marigolds leads back to their homes to guide the souls. At home, families make their loved one's favorite foods and decorate with papercrafts, sugar skulls and other memorabilia to make a pleasing presentation.

During this time, the cemeteries are the busiest places in the entire city. I stood respectfully outside of one and watched as dozens of families came and went. They carried wreaths, flowers, signs, candles, bread and other items to decorate and clean the graves. In the streets nearby, vendors sold food, drinks, marigolds, played music. The families gathered in celebration, eating food bought from the carts.

As a taphophile (cemetery lover), it was difficult for me to come to a festival for the dead and not go into the cemeteries. Still, I hope to visit again once the festivities have passed.

  • The marigold – Flor de Muerto (Flower of the dead) is said to have the brightest petals and most pungent scent to attract the dead and guide them.

Ofrendas

The ofrendas of many families filled the town square in Puerto Vallarta. The scent of marigold filled the air and the sound of laughter of storytelling was everywhere. Each day family members came and added new items to the ofrendas. By the end, those that looked as if they might be plain, were transformed into colorful, lighted altars.

Ofrendas can be found inside and outside of the home in public places, businesses, and cemeteries. Families may have more than one and contribute to many. In Puerto Vallarta, there were many created around the city and hosted by various families. An ofrenda can vary in size and complexity. It depends on how many loved ones it honors and where it is placed. They may be small and private, but some, like those at churches, can be as large as a small room.

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Besides photos and memorabilia, these altars contain the deceased person's favorite foods. You'll find pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) and brightly colored sugar skulls and drinks (often alcohol) favored by the departed. I saw pictures, sand mandalas, paper crafts, beadwork, pottery and other Mexican handiwork decorating the ofrendas in the town square.

Skulls

Calaveras, or skulls, are depicted on everything. In Aztec times, the displaying of skulls of the dead, whether prisoners or friends, were put out to ensure the deceased a safe passage into the afterlife. To distinguish the skulls, they were decorated to depict the likeness of the person to whom it belonged. The bright colors made them easier to see by those in the spirit world.

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Now, these colorfully painted skulls can be found on everything. They're on the art to the displays to the shape of the candy (sugar skulls). They’re decorated in colors and designs that represent the life of the departed loved one. They can include foil gems, sequins, glitter, ribbons, candy sprinkles, feathers, beads and other adornments. Often, some sort of marigold petal or flower is depicted.

  • A poetic calavera is also a short, sarcastic and funny poem about the dead—sort of like an afterlife roast.

Catrina

There are skulls and then there are Catrinas. This famous skeleton is depicted with a big floppy hat with feathers and colorful flowers. Mexica Illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada (friend of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera) created it. He made “the elegant skull” to playfully mock wealthy; well-dressed Mexican ladies he felt were too absorbed with European culture.

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All over Puerto Vallarta displays of Catrina skeletons stole the show. There were over a dozen oversized paper mache Catrinas on the Malecon and at least one taller than the palm trees. Their brightly colored pink, blue, yellow and red dresses glowed in the sunlight, seemingly lit from within. The flowers on their heads were the size of cantaloupes and their skeletal smiles were as wide as a boat.

Probably much to Posada's chagrin, his image of the female skeleton with a long dress and fancy hat is now a staple of Dia de los Muertos. Women and girls across the city dressed as Catrina's. They walk about in their skull makeup with flouncing hats, veils and heads full of flowers.

Charro parade

The traditions and activities that celebrate the Day of the Dead are not universal, often varying from town to town. In Puerto Vallarta, an essential part of their celebrations includes the charro.

A charro is a traditional horseman from the central Mexico regions, like Jalisco, where Puerto Vallarta is located. La Charrería is the ancient Mexican art of horse handling. During one parade, the charro rode through the town and demonstrated their lasso skills and horse dancing.

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They painted their horses to look like skeletons, and the women and girls riding them wore long flowing colorful dresses; their faces too painted like skulls. The men dressed in a mariachi style of long pants and jackets with embroidery down the legs and front of the shirts. Their horses showed off too. Trotting in high stepping dance sequences, their faces hidden under masks, the hair twisted with flowers.

Day of the Dead

Throughout the festivities, there were fireworks and light shows, live music along the Malecon and pop-up stages around town. It was common to see women with marigolds, children with their faces painted like skulls, and depictions of the skeletons across public displays everywhere. Everyone, local and visitor alike took some part in the festivities. For a few days, life stopped and the dead were remembered as if they’d never left.

I learned about and honored people I'd never met before. As I thought of my own family, I envied this beautiful tradition. How wonderful would it be to gather with my family and friends and make stuffed cabbage for my Mom? We would tell jokes about when my brother David lost his front tooth. Or we'd light a scented candle for my niece Amanda who loved them so much? What if we made time to remember them in a way that wasn’t painful but joyful?

It would be wonderful. As wonderful as Dia de los Muertos.

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Digital nomad, solo traveling full time. I write about travel, adventure, universal energy, and the journey through life. Pictures on Instagram @renecizio

Chicago, IL
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