“I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return.” – Frida Kahlo
Day of the Dead is one of the most well-known aspects of Mexican culture. I believe this was made even more mainstream after a James Bond movie showcased a parade of skeletons in Mexico City. Let me start off by saying that such a parade was only created after the movie came out a few years ago. Regardless of how much more mainstream this holiday has become (have you seen the Pixar movie, Coco?), Day of the Dead is still the most folkloric tradition I have ever experienced as an expat.
In 2017, I was working in a preschool in Mexico City, and each class had to set up an altar. Mexicans put so much effort into creating beautiful altars that not only showcase Mexico’s colors but flavors. Altars are made for specific families or people. One class in the preschool set up an altar for Walt Disney, but at home people make altars for their deceased family members.
The idea is that on this day, our ancestors are allowed to return home to their descendants, paying us a visit to celebrate life and death. The altars are beautifully decorated and replenished with food offerings for the souls of those whose pictures are displayed. While Halloween is a day before the Day of the Dead, it really has nothing to do with the American concept. Nowadays, the cultures have mixed and some of that Mexican tradition has been lost in the gory costumes and decorations.
The Day of the Dead is not Halloween, and I wish there was a way to stop these two holidays from overlapping in places like Mexico City. You can still find towns where the Mexican tradition dominates the festivities. Places like Oaxaca and Michoacan are good examples of states where the Day of the Dead can be appreciated in a more authentic way. This year I am lucky I live in Oaxaca state where I will celebrate by going to the local high school to see their altars. I will also visit a cemetery where people make food and flower offerings to their deceased relatives.
Overall decorations for Day of the Dead are far from somber. In fact, they are my favorite part of Mexican culture. There is “papel picado” in hot pink, orange, yellow, royal blue, and green colors in the streets, restaurants, and businesses. Skulls are painted in bright colors. You can also see many representations of the “Catrina,” the symbol of the Day of the Dead. The Catrina is a female skeleton dressed in a gown, hat, and fancy jewelry. It’s a satire of a materialistic culture. Aztec marigolds, the bright orange flowers seen everywhere in this season, are to guide souls back to their homes. Many people place them outside their houses, or on their family altars. The idea is that these flowers light up the path for our ancestors to make an easy return from the after life during night time. Once the souls arrive, they can enjoy the food offerings prepared by their family members.
As time has passed and civilization transformed, not everyone holds these beliefs in their hearts. A lot of it is simply about another day off where you can eat delicious food. One of the traditional things to eat is called “pan de muerto” (dead bread). It has a buttery taste, it is softer than a donut, and it is covered in white sugar or sesame seeds (it changes depending on the region). I like when they make it as pictured below, where the top is made to look like bones. It is best enjoyed with hot chocolate, which is a big part of Mexican cuisine.
The most beautiful thing about this holiday is the happiness. The idea that we are immortal in a sense, and that we should celebrate the cycle of life and death is inspiring. Even if you do not believe in the after life, is it not wonderful to take a day to celebrate those who came before you? To remember loved ones you might have lost, and to think of them as being happy and full of life, no matter where they might be.
This Day of the Dead, I am thinking of my dad. Wherever he might be, I hope he can see all the places in the world I have traveled to since we last saw each other, and that he too, can enjoy a trip back with all the Mexican ancestors.
Who will you be thinking about this year?
Photo: Vanessa Lynn Uzcategui