The Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos has just ended in Mexico, and that’s as good an excuse as any to celebrate all things Mexican – from Frida and Diego to the Lucha Libre, from tacos and guacamole to Margaritas and mariachis.
During the recent Cambodia Water Festival of Bon Om Tuk, I found myself thinking about the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities that were simultaneously underway – despite the fact that Day of the Dead has more in common with Cambodia’s Pchum Ben ancestors festival.
That we’ve spent the last 19 years in Asia, Europe and the Middle East never ceases to surprise me, as Latin America, especially Mexico and Cuba, occupied us for over a decade before we moved abroad. Mexico was the first country we travelled to (via Japan, but only for 24 hours, which doesn’t count) and my second degree was in Latin American studies and Spanish.
The Mexican Day of the Dead was the inspiration for that first trip to Mexico and I crafted a six-week itinerary focused on Mexican food, culture, art, archaeology, and everyday life – punctuated by beach time. Not a lot has changed as far as our interests go when travelling. Now I’m using the Day of the Dead as an excuse to spend some virtual time in Mexico.
Day of the Dead in Mexico – An Excuse to Celebrate All Things Mexican
Recognized by UNESCO in 2008 when it was added to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the Day of the Dead has its roots in the pre-Hispanic cultures, for whom the dead lived on in spirit, temporarily returning to earth for Día de los Muertos.
Over time, pre-Hispanic rituals fused with the Catholic feast days of All Saints Day (1 November) and All Souls Day (2 November), which coincided with Mexico’s traditional maize harvest – just as Bon Om Tuk coincides with the rice harvest here in Cambodia.
The Mexican Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos
During the Day of the Dead holidays, Mexicans make a beeline for cemeteries where they clean and decorate their ancestors’ tombstones with candles and flowers (mainly marigolds, which are loaded with symbolism, just as they are in Asia) before gathering around the grave for a picnic.
At home, they make offerings of food, water, candles, and flowers at elaborate altars (ofrenda) dedicated to deceased loved-ones, which they adorn with photos, images of the Virgin, crosses, colourful calaveras (skulls), calacas (skeletons), and banners of pretty papel picado (perforated coloured paper cut-outs).
Traditions and rituals vary from region to region but Mexicans typically hold parties with singing and dancing, and parade in public processions dressed in skeleton costumes, meant to personify death. The most popular character is that of the Calavera Catrina (‘dapper skeleton’), which evolved from illustrator and print-maker José Guadalupe Posada’s satirical 1910 etching called La Calavera Garbancera of a skeleton wearing the elaborate, broad-brimmed, feathered hat of a European aristocrat.
Mexican artist Diego Rivera included Posada’s skeleton, whom he called Catrina (‘the rich’), in his 1947 mural ‘Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park’, dressing her in an elegant white dress and an even more flamboyant hat. In recent years, Catrina has become the Day of the Dead’s most iconic character and the trend to dress up as her, complete with intricately decorated face make-up, has swept the world.
While the Day of the Dead rituals, symbolism, and costumes has long captured my imagination, the traditional food and drink of the Day of the Dead holiday has always tantalised my taste buds. Placed at altars and enjoyed at graveside picnics, food and drinks are intended to sate the appetites of the spirits, who work up an appetite on their long journey back to the land of living, as much as they are to be enjoyed by holiday-makers.
Day of the Dead specialties includes pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a sweet, anise-flavoured bread decorated with bones and skulls; banana leaf wrapped tamales and different types of mole (which we learned to make in a cooking class in San Miguel de Allende); atole, a warm, almost pudding-like, corn-flour beverage made with cane sugar and cinnamon; and pulque, a drink fermented from agave sap. Then there are the quintessential Day of the Dead speciality: colourful sugar skulls, embellished with icing, sequins and feathers (although edible, these aren’t usually eaten).
Celebrating All Things Mexican
Aside from the Day of the Dead holiday, these were some of our other inspirations for travelling to Mexico, the things that I most love about Mexico that would entice me back in a heartbeat.
Mexican Art and Crafts
I returned home from our first trip to Mexico City with a backpack crammed with prints of Frida Kahlo’s wild paintings and retro stationery to colourful handicrafts and folk art of the kind Kahlo amassed in her Coyoacan home, now the Museo Frida Kahlo – from striped serapes and woven textiles to wooden crosses covered with Milagros and Day of the Dead dioramas with miniature skeletal figures. After all, I’d learnt about the Day of the Dead through Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (to learn more about her, I highly read the Hayden Herrera book). When you visit Mexico City, make sure to take in all the phenomenal art of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and visit the fabulous Museum of Popular Art to absorb vibrant displays of basketry, costumes, paper maché, pottery, ceramics, and the kooky folk art associated with Day of the Dead.
Mexican Food and Drink
What’s not to love about Mexican food and drink? From the breakfasts of spicy eggs, such as huevos con chorizo, huevos rancheros or huevos revueltos con chorizo, which we devoured on every trip at Cafe El Popular in Mexico City to the street food specialties we sampled on a tour with Lesley Tellez of Eat Mexico, from a traditional sopa de tortilla and tacos al pastor at Salón Corona to the modern Mexican food of Chef Martha Ortiz and the contemporary cuisine of restaurants such as Pujol in the capital, we have eaten very well in Mexico. And let’s not forget the markets… from the fantastic produce at Mexico City’s La Merced markets – from a staggering array of nopales (cactus paddles) to wonderful Oaxacan cheeses – to the ceviche (marinated raw fish/seafood) and cocteles de mariscos (seafood cocktails) at Mercado Coyoacán. Then there are the drinks… spicy Micheladas, classic Margaritas, Mexican wine, Pulque and Mezcal.
Mexican Popular Culture, Music and Dance
There are few experiences in the world that beat an afternoon spent on the Mexico City Zocalo watching indigenous dancers perform or an evening with the mariachis on Plaza Garibaldi, being serenaded by the talented troubadours. Perhaps a late night in San Miguel de Allende listening to Benjamin Lara strumming his guitar as he sings songs of love and lament comes close, as does an evening trailing a roving wedding party through the town’s atmospheric streets. A night with the superhero Mexican wrestlers at Mexico City’s Lucha Libre isn’t something we’ll forget in a hurry either.
Are you a fan of Mexico and all things Mexican? What is it that you love most? And have you been to the Day of the Dead?