Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City
The Day of the Dead in Mexico City
Mexico City has a population of almost 9 million, with well over 20 million within its metropolitan area. This makes it an incredibly diverse place for Day of the Dead festivities. While there are other places in the country with very unique celebrations, Mexico City is an excellent place to experience the day for the first time. It has both types of celebrations, traditional and modern, along with plenty of others in which to see the more standard version of the holiday. With that said, here are a few facts and places to know about and keep in mind about the Day of the Dead in this city.
Mixquic and the Alumbrada
Perhaps the most widely known celebration in Mexico City is the one that takes place from the night of October 31 to November 2 in the community of San Andrés Mixquic. The Day of the Dead has been the most important holiday there for a long time now, which is reflected by the fact that the local graveyard is located in the front lawn of the town’s church. In keeping with this spirit, the cemetery is covered in marigold and other flowers for the duration of the celebration, which turns it from a typical field layered with tombstones into a canvas of multiple colors, which is in itself a worthy sight.
The most well known feature of the celebration, however, in this community is the alumbrada (lighting-up) but that is only the culmination of a three-day event. On October 31, the town bells ring marking the arrival of the souls of children. The next day breakfast is offered to them, and after that a special mass is held to bid the souls farewell. After the mass, the bells ring again to announce the arrival of the souls of departed adults. The next day, November 2, which is the official date for the Day of the Dead, the alumbrada finally happens. With the souls having arrived, the community gathers at the graveyard to light candles in remembrance of their deceased loved ones, which goes on throughout the night. At night, it is easy to see why this particular event has become so popular, not only in Mexico, but also abroad. Hundreds of candles lit in honor of the deceased turn the town into a fiery spectacle, which, accompanied by the flowers makes for an unparalleled view.
Fun fact: The cemetery seen in the Pixar movie Coco is visually very similar to, and was probably inspired by the cemetery in San Andrés Mixquic, where the Alumbrada is held.
The Day of the Dead at Mexico’s oldest university
Another more recent tradition is the Festival Universitario del Día de Muertos. This event is hosted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country’s largest and oldest university, and has been happening since 1997. Like in the previous example, the kind of host is reflected in the nature of the event. Much less personal and spiritual, the event is often dedicated to important historical and cultural figures, like Diego Rivera, the honoree of the 2017 edition, and it consists of one giant ofrenda (offering) to honor that particular individual.
In keeping with the academic purpose of the organizing institution, the ofrendas are made to reflect the honored individual’s life and work with efforts that go beyond having their image and items associated with them as is the case in more traditional ofrendas. For the 2014 edition of the festival, for example, the altar was dedicated to Frida Khalo. Her paintings are characteristic for drawing inspiration from the art of Mexico’s indigenous population. To reflect this, the ofrenda was adorned with visual elements taken from communities like the huicholes, mayans, aztecs, and tarahumaras, among many others. The festival is not held in a particular location, and it changes every year. The ofrenda is usually kept on display from October 28 to November 2.
What sets this event aside from others is the way it blends other aspects of Mexican culture with the Day of the Dead. As such, it is an incredible opportunity to learn about both the day and Mexico as a whole. The fact that it is organized by one of Mexico’s most important educational institutions, and one that has been tied to the development of cultural movements, both in the capital and the country as a whole, guarantees that the ofrendas will not only be an interesting learning experience but also, a beautiful visual experience.
Fun Fact: The Day of the Dead has been designated as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
The newest tradition: Day of the Dead Parade
The most recent addition to this diverse array of celebrations is the Day of the Dead parade. Interestingly, this is a celebration likely existed in the minds of foreigners before it ever happened. The 2017 parade, for example, in addition to being dedicated to the victims of the Mexico City earthquake of September of the same year, was divided into two separate sections, each with a different motive. The first one was called La muerte viva (The living death) and was intended to explore the different conceptions of death that have been held by the inhabitants of what is now Mexico since Pre-Columbine times, all the way to the present. The second part, called Carnaval de calaveras (Carnival of skeletons) was a display of the figure of the catrina and catrín, a representation of death, ubiquitous in Mexican culture, depicted as a well dressed skeleton, the former female and the latter male. Even if it is not the most traditional celebration, it is definitely a welcome one. The parade in itself is striking. Thousands of performers on foot, on top of especially built and decorated floats, or even on bicycles make for a beautiful panorama on one of the areas of the city with significant historical value.
It is difficult to know the date of the parade, since it has only been held twice. The two editions that happened already occurred on different days, the first one on October 27, and the second one on October 28. Is is difficult to say, then, when is it held, other than on a date close to the official Day of the Dead, or if a fixed date will ever be set. As for the location, it has twice trailed along Paseo de la Reforma. It is likely, then, that it will continue to be held there, both for convenience and for its significance within the city.
Fun Fact: The catrina as it is known today, the female representation of death as a well dressed female skeleton was created by José Guadalupe Posada and popularized by Mexican painter Diego Rivera, as a criticism of Mexican aristocrats of the time
Words and phrases to know
Many holidays have an associated customary greeting, such as “Merry Christmas” or “Eid Mubarak”. This is most certainly not the case for the Day of the Dead. This does not mean, however, that there is no exchange of words or phrases that happens in this context, or that there are no terms particularly associated with the celebration. One of these is the calaverita (little skull) which will be explained in a bit. But there are other relevant terms and phrases; a common phrase that one might hear is “¿me da mi calaverita?”, which translates to “would you give me my little skull?”. This phrase is used by children to ask for either candy or money, and is very similar to the way American children ask for “trick or treat”. The most important single word to know, however, is probably “ofrenda”. This refers to both the altar that is prepared to honor the deceased, but also the offerings of food and drink left for them on the altar.
Calaveritas One custom that is inextricably linked to the celebration is the calaverita (little skull). This is not exclusive to Mexico City, but it is certainly true of the festivity.
The calaverita should not be confused with the calaverita de azúcar (little sugar skull). The latter is a treat made out of compressed sugar in the shape of a skull, also traditional of the Day of the Dead, but the former is a kind of humorous poem, not unlike a limerick in its lightheartedness. Unlike limericks, however, calaveritas have no set structure, but have a very definite subject matter. They are meant to tell the story of a person’s death, but always with levity and fun. The main character of the calaverita is always a living person. Calaveritas are not an obligation, even less than, much like a Christmas presents. But for those with the time and the talent to write them they are the best way to show affection for a person during that particular day. While there is no structure, they are meant to rhyme. The subject matter is simple: telling the story of how death (as in, the Reaper) found the person to whom the verses are dedicated, and how it took them away.
Fun Fact: Although very similar and immediately recognizable as an analogous practice, trick-or-treating and asking for calaverita have completely separate origins.