We know you watched “Coco” -- everyone has seen “Coco.” And if you haven’t...go see “Coco.”
The movie is not only sweet as pie (because, Pixar), but it’s been praised as an authentic representation of Mexican culture during Day of the Dead celebrations.
Día de los Muertos is colorful, lively and luminous -- quite the juxtaposition with what it actually celebrates: death. The commemoration is meant to be a time of remembrance and honor and an opportunity for people to demonstrate love for their relatives who have passed on. The Mexican people believe that the souls of their family can, on just a few days of the year, return to the land of the living, so to speak. As a result, Nov. 1 is celebrated as All Saints’ Day, where children are remembered, and Nov. 2 is All Souls’ Day, where adults are honored.
It’s important to remember, though, that Day of the Dead is not just “Mexican Halloween.” The holiday began in Mexico with civilizations like the Aztecs, Toltecs and other Nahua people. They considered mourning the dead to be in poor taste to their memory, since it’s a natural phase, and therefore created festivities designed to joyously honor them instead.
Since then, Mexico and other Latin American communities have used cultural symbols and traditions to make Day of the Dead what it is today. Towns become covered with ofrendas, a type of altar meant not for worshipping but for welcoming souls to Earth; marigolds, said to direct spirits back to their place of rest; and calaveras, or skulls, the most famous of which is La Catrina.
José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican political cartoonist, created a sketch in the 20th century of a female (we assume, due to her enormous, wide-brimmed hat) skeleton that he called Calavera Garbancera and that today is known as La Catrina (loosely translated to “elegant skeleton”). After being made even more famous by Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” La Catrina is now the face of Day of the Dead, meant to laugh at death -- and what a face it is.
Mexicans will dress up as calaveras, and La Catrina specifically (865 people set a Guinness World Record in 2016 for the largest gathering of Catrinas), while they decorate and set up their ofrendas. Laden with food (like pan de muerto, a semi-sweet, sugar-dusted bread infused with citrus), toys for children, candles, photographs, papel picado, or pierced papers that represent the fragility of life, and alfeñiques, art pieces made from sugar (hence sugar skulls), the ofrendas are usually set up in the privacy of homes and around graves in local cemeteries.
Día de los Muertos is meant to be a semi-intimate celebration of life and death, a reminder to keep the memory of your loved ones close to keep their spirits alive (cue “Remember Me”).
So, keeping that in mind, how should you get involved?
The answer is respectfully, first and foremost, but there’s definitely a way to witness the festivities without barging in on anyone’s privacy.
In Mexico City proper, the biggest display of merriment is the Grand Parade -- but it’s only three years running. The parade is a product of -- surprise -- disgruntled tourists, who, after watching Daniel Craig waltz through a (then non-existent)
de los Muertosparade in 2015’s “Spectre,” wanted to see it for themselves. The date of the parade is usually finicky, though, given that it’s such a new tradition; this year’s happened on Oct. 27.
Regardless of its origins, the parade is rife with color, performers, puppeteered skeletons and calaveras along Paseo de la Reforma; the procession runs from the Angel of Independence monument all the way to the Zocalo, or main square, and parade marchers will have their faces painted and outfits decked out to represent Catrina.
While local street markets in Mexico City will still be full of traditional Day of the Dead regalia and other shops will be selling classic food and decorations, most of the holiday observance is done in cemeteries, which, while technically public, isn't exactly a tourist-friendly environment. But a number of communities outside the main city are encouraging of visitors for their Day of the Dead festivities, including Mixquic and Coyoacan.
In Mixquic, about an hour southeast of Mexico City, processions can be seen up and down the street, where carnival-style booths are set up for souvenir and food purchases, and stages are built for traditional music and dances, complete with Catrina costumes.
So, ready to set up your ofrenda?