The origins of el Día de los muertos
Let’s start from the beginning with some information about the origins of this festival. It is in the city of Oaxaca that the Festival of the Dead has its origins and meaning. This important link with the ancestors comes from the Zapotec culture. For the Zapotecs, who lived in the state of Oaxaca for thousands of years, death is a great event because there is always a link between the world of the dead and the world of the living. The real death is the one of forgetting, and the Mexican celebration of the dead is precisely to never forget them. The Disney movie “Coco”, released in 2017, presents this custom wonderfully. We actually loved watching it after our trip because we understood all the subtleties of the movie.
Today, starting in mid-October, the city of Oaxaca, like many other cities in the country, transforms into a celebration of death with representations of skeletons and skulls on every street corner and decorations on every facade. A festive atmosphere!
How is El Día de los Muertos celebrated in Oaxaca?
The Day of the Dead takes place between October 31 and November 2. More than a festival, it is the preparation of this day that is impressive to discover: all the generations mobilize to decorate the altars of their dead, the cities and the cemeteries are colored and almost everyone goes through the “make-up” stage (which clearly marked us since some of these make-ups take several hours to be realized). But in practical terms, how does it work?
✦ The graveyards – Panteon
First of all, the party takes place in the Panteon (the cemeteries). A few days before el dia de lors muertos, Mexicans start decorating the graves, putting candles and flowers of all colors on them. From the end of October, Mexicans go to the cemeteries, with their families and friends, to find their deceased loved ones. There is music, some will sing, dance, play an instrument, others will prepare food and drink. In Oaxaca, several cemeteries are open to the public where concerts are held. The event attracts hundreds of people, so you can find yourself in a fiery atmosphere… Hard to believe that we actually dance on graves!
✦ The Decorative Altars – Altar
Then there are the Altar (altars) that can be found just about everywhere: at the entrance of a hotel or a store, on the street corner, in front of houses or in cemeteries, for example. Families come to place a photo of their deceased loved one on these altars and bring offerings. The Altars are decorated and filled with food (sugar – because it seems that there is no sugar in Heaven), Coca Cola etc. Before el dia de los muertos the families prepare the favorite food and drinks of the deceased. It is also common to see flower carpets. These carpets are made up of Indian roses, cresta de gallo or multicolored immortal flowers. The most amazing thing is the objects placed on the altar of the dead, if the deceased was a musician they bring for example his favorite instrument.
In the city of Oaxaca, the festivities are not limited to the cemeteries. Every day there are parades where groups dressed up in costumes and makeup, according to their traditions, march by. The best thing is to ask for information when you get there to get all the details. I was really impressed by every detail of the costumes, the make-up, the choreographies which are prepared meticulously for months. In the street, too, everyone plays the game. Every shop offers special “make-up” for the Day of the Dead and everyone applies themselves for long hours to put on their most frightening appearance. With the music, it’s a real festival atmosphere!
✦ El Mercado de Benito Juarez
Finally, if you come to Oaxaca you must stop by the largest market in Oaxaca City: the Benito Juarez Covered Market. When you arrive at the end of October, you’ll find a festive atmosphere at all the stands: pan de los muertos, pan de queso, sugar skulls, costumes, not to mention the flower stands! I forgot to mention how flowery this celebration is. There are flowers everywhere: on the altars, on the graves, on the facades, in the streets… everywhere!
I let you discover in pictures
My experience of the Day of the Dead
I loved the colors, the thousands of flowers, the smells, the music and especially to be a privileged witness of this wonderful celebration. The most beautiful memory remains our visit to a cemetery in a small town in Chiapas (outside of the tourist areas) where we were able to see the families dancing, drinking and eating on the graves of their relatives and ancestors.
The Mexicans have, without a doubt, another perspective of honoring life. They teach us a wonderful lesson in life.
To discover the rest of our trip to Mexico, read here.