It is October 31st. Children skip through the 600-year old streets of Patzcuaro, Mexico, collecting candy, as families, business owners, and churches prepare for the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration the following day. Vibrant orange marigolds hang from every tree, archway, and sign in sight. The mouth-watering scent of cooking elotes drift across the town square, as traditional dancers bound amidst the hanging globe lights. Patzcuaro is known for its rich and traditional celebration of the holiday, and this is just the beginning.
Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” is an annual celebration deeply rooted in Mexican tradition, family values, honoring the deceased, and respecting your elders. The celebration is commonly misunderstood - being incorrectly associated with Halloween, pagan rituals, and costumes. This unfortunate, and inaccurate, perception is likely a result of selective media coverage and pop culture influence. This will set the record straight.
October 31st - 12:00pm - Patzcuaro
The preparation is an all day affair. Schools are closed, and everyone lends a hand. By late morning town center is filled with students, parents, and community leaders, all working together. At the center of the square, large and artfully decorated altars surround the fountain, each representing a neighboring community, and memorializing their loved ones.
Day of the Dead was originally celebrated by the indigenous Aztec population over 3,000 years ago. After the Spanish colonized Mexico in the 1600's, the holiday was moved from the early summer to October 31st-2nd to coincide with the Catholic tradition All Saint's Day. It then became a syncretization of Aztec ritual and Catholicism. Over time, the celebration spread across Mexico, until the Mexican government declared it a national holiday in the 1960's.
The festival is split up into three days: 1.) October 31st - Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) - a day when deceased children are honored 2.) November 1st - All Saint's Day – a day dedicated to the Catholic holiday; and3.) November 2nd - All Souls Day – a final day spent in the cemetery honoring your loved ones.
October 31st - 7:00pm - Patzcuaro
By now thousands of marigolds have been meticulously placed in every nook and cranny, twilight has set in, and the warm glow of candles illuminates the city center. With the evening festivities well underway, the only masks and costumes are on children or wandering tourists. Here, Mexico celebrates differently.
A crowd packs the square as local high school students begin a show of traditional harvest dances. The graceful performances honor the deceased, the upcoming crop, and the prolific fish population in the lake surrounding Patzcuaro. Children watch with wide eyes as the brightly colored dancers light up the night.
November 1st - 5:00pm - Tzintzuntzan
Elsewhere, families work tirelessly, creating some of the most elaborately decorated grave sites in all of Mexico. The cemeteries are packed - it's impossible to enter without dodging several bushels of marigolds and a mariachi band. Spirits are high, and families reminisce together over homemade dinners as they prepare for the evening. A vendor walks amidst the graves yelling, "Hot churros! I got churros!" This is the side of Dia de los Muertos that not many see.
The holiday is known globally, but its reputation is mostly bright skeleton masks, and parades. This is because media and pop culture have conditioned the pubic to associate these things with the holiday. Perhaps the largest recent influence is James Bond: Spectre. The film features an intense chase scene through the center of Mexico City during a Dia de los Muertos parade. Before Spectre - parades like this did not exist. It was fabricated for the filming, and now represents a permanent fixture in the tradition.
After Spectre, and an immense boost in tourism for the festival, Mexico City made the parade an annual event. The modern festivities quickly spread to other cities and towns across the country. A holiday dating back thousands of years has been altered by James Bond.
November 1st - 6:15pm - Tzintzuntzan
Sunset is moments away. A jovial energy reverberates throughout cemetery as the sun lowers in the sky. A distant sound of a thunderous brass section can be heard drifting down the main street of Tzintzuntzan. As the sun dips below the horizon, a parade of hundreds roars down the main street with jubilant conviction. The traditional parade is comprised of families from Tzintzuntzan, and leads to the public service for All Saint's Day in the town park.
This parade is much different from the one in Mexico City. In this procession there are no costumes, painted faces, or skeleton floats. Instead there are large wooden frames plastered with marigolds, photos, and belongings of the town's deceased loved ones. The men holding the frames dance furiously as the mariachis guide the crowd with the smooth resonance of their horns.
The procession reaches the center of town, and turns into the town park with a large crowd in tow. Everyone gathers at a stage in front of the church, and moments later a priest emerges to deliver a stentorian sermon. After the service concludes, the parade continues directly into the cemeteries.
As darkness settles over the gravestones, flicks of lighters exploding in the night as the cemetery came alive with the warm glow of candlelight. At this point families were fully settled in - relaxing in lawn chairs and enjoying time with one another. Plates of food, musical instruments, and bottles of tequila are being passed about in a joyous celebration.
November 1st - 9:30pm - Tzintzuntzan
Many families invite mariachis or brass bands to follow them throughout the night. Families lead the procession, carrying the large wooden altar face above their heads from the evening service to the cemetery. The bands follow behind, calling out to the deceased with an ensemble of horns.
When families arrive at the gravesite, musicians surround them as they set up the altar face, light the candles, and burn copal (or incense). The copal aroma is said to purify the souls of the dead as they enter the world of the living. The mariachis serenade the family for the next hour as they call upon their loved ones. After they leave, the family settles in to eat, drink, and reminisce.
November 2nd - 1:30am - Tzurumútaro
Tourists and onlookers thin out by 1:00-2:00am – only the families and friends of those buried beneath our feet remain. Small groups form across the cemetery - some starting fires, cooking food, or playing cards. The mood is warm, and reflective. Everyone is enjoying themselves, laughing amidst the thousands of flickering candles.
November 2nd - 3:15am - Tzurumútaro
As the clock pushes past 3:00am, many families pack up, taking their children home to bed. Only a small but distinct group remain - those that feel they still need to be here. Those that want every last second with their wife, their mother, their brother. As the sun rises through the trees, in humbling unison, final prayers are uttered, and those remaining leave the cemetery.