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 next day. Vibrant, orange marigolds hang from every tree, archway, and sign. The mouth-watering scent of elotes drifts across the town square, as traditional dancers perform under the atmospheric globe lights. Patzcuaro is known for its culturally 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, and often 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, 12:00 p.m. — Patzcuaro
Dia de los Muertos 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 the beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic tradition of 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 preparation is a day-long affair. Schools are closed and everyone lends a hand. By late morning, the 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 community or memorializing a loved one.
October 31st, 7:00 p.m. — 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. Although the evening festivities were well-underway, the only masks and costumes visible are on children or wandering tourists. It’s then I notice that 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 adorned dancers light up the night.
Each family constructs an altar around their loved one’s gravesite. This altar serves as a portal for the dead to enter the world of the living during the festival period. These memorials are quite expansive, consisting of wooden frames, thousands of marigolds, and prolific offerings of food.
Their three shelves of food represent heaven, earth, and the underworld. Items honoring the saints of the Catholic Church are placed on the top shelves, while favorite foods and the deceased’s personal items are placed on the lower shelves. It is believed that the cross made of salt at the base helps purify souls as they cross into the world of the living. The candles and marigolds help guide the souls with their bright colors and strong scents.
The evening festivities end early to allow families a little rest before the 24-hour celebration beginning at sunrise. The square is quiet, and the candles flicker in the breeze on this cool Hallows’ Eve.
November 1, 11:00 a.m. — San Francisco Uricho
The street of every small town surrounding Lake Pátzcuaro is packed with people, each with a specific place to be during the festival. Karla Cortes, of San Francisco Uricho, leaves her home with a wheelbarrow of marigolds, coffee cans, and candles. She, her mother, and her sister take this same walk every year, and spend the afternoon decorating several of their family member’s gravestones.
November 1, 2:30 p.m. — Santa Fe
A few towns away, Luz Marie picks marigolds behind the local church. She will later take her trimmings to the market to sell with her daughter. This is a common practice due to the immense demand for flowers at this time of year. They will then visit the cemetery after all the flowers are sold.
November 1st, 5:00 p.m. — Tzintzuntzan
Elsewhere, families work tirelessly to create elaborately decorated gravesites. The cemeteries are packed — it’s impossible to enter without running into several bushels of marigolds or a mariachi band. Spirits are high, and families reminisce together over homemade dinners as they prepare for the evening. A vendor walks among the graves, yelling, “Hot churros! I got churros!” This is the side of Dia de los Muertos that many do not see.
November 1st, 6:15 p.m. — Tzintzuntzan
Sunset is only moments away. A jovial energy reverberates throughout the cemetery as the sun begins to sink lower in the sky. The distant sound of a thunderous brass section can be heard drifting through 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 leading the way to the public service for All Saints’ 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 park.Everyone gathers at a stage in front of the church and, moments later, a priest emerges to deliver a sermon. After the service concludes, the parade continues directly into the cemeteries.
As darkness settles over the gravestones, flicks of lighters explode in the night and the cemetery comes alive with the warm glow of candlelight. At this point, families are fully settled in — relaxing in lawn chairs and enjoying time with one another. Plates of food, musical instruments, and bottles of tequila are passed around in joyous celebration.
November 1st, 9:30 p.m. — 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 band follows behind, calling out to the deceased with an ensemble of horns.
When families arrive at the gravesites, musicians surround them as they set up the altar face, light the candles, and burn copal. 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 families settle in to eat, drink, and reminisce.
November 2nd, 1:30 a.m. — Tzurumútaro
Tourists and onlookers thin out between one and two in the morning and 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, 3:15 a.m. — Tzurumútaro
As the clock pushes past three in the morning, 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 there. Those who want every last second with their wife, their mother, their brother. As the sun rises through the trees, final prayers are uttered in humbling unison, and those remaining leave the cemetery.
November 2nd, 10:00 a.m. — Patzcuaro
As some head home to sleep, others wake and return to the cemetery. The streets and markets are packed wall-to-wall with people carrying more marigolds, food, and supplies. November 2nd is the Day of the Dead. Families often tend to their loved ones’ gravesites in the morning, before spending the remainder of the day eating, drinking, and having small memorials.
Like the day before, the morning visit is a family affair, and can involve replacing flowers, redistributing petals, changing water, and replacing burnt-out candles. Three generations can be seen planting marigolds together atop a fourth. Mariachi bands are heard from every direction as children skip down the flower-clad aisles of mausoleums.
As hundreds of marigold-clad families continued to pour through the cemetery gates – the momentous cultural significance of this celebration finally became clear. It is so much more than the commercialized masks, parades, and costumes propagated throughout mainstream media.
Remember to look past the masks, and see Dia de los Muertos for what it truly is: a celebration of family, community, and deep tradition.