Day of the Dead in Mexico City

A "Catrina" costume in Mixquic

A "Catrina" costume in Mixquic

A costumed participant in Mixquic

A costumed participant in Mixquic

Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday dating back several thousand years to Aztec times in which families remember and honor those who have passed away. Far from a day of mourning, Day of the Dead is a festive holiday celebrating the lives of deceased loved ones. It is celebrated throughout Mexico and by people of Mexican ancestry living elsewhere, especially the United States. I've enjoyed attending elaborate Day of the Dead festivals in New York City and San Diego, California, both of which have large and vibrant Mexican populations.

One of the most common sights during Day of the Dead are sugar skulls, small skulls made of a sugar paste and decorated with icing, colored foil, flowers, and the names of the "lost souls." These skulls are then placed on alters, which are built and decorated as tributes to deceased loved ones and contain photographs and various items to help the dead along their journey. Candles are placed to light the way, water to quench thirst, "pan de muerto" ("dead bread") for fuel, and bright orange marigold flowers to guide the souls to the alter with their vibrant color and scent.

Day of the Dead really should be called Days of the Dead, as the holiday is celebrated over two days, November 1st and 2nd. The first day, Day of the Innocent, honors children and infants while the second day honors adults who have passed away. While many Mexicans have off work on November 1st or 2nd and flock to cemeteries to leave offerings for loved ones, colorful alters are on display throughout late October and early November. Mexico City, among other cities, host large Day of the Dead parades and other activities over the weekend immediately following or preceding November 1st-2nd.

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Forever enamored with and curious about Mexican culture, I spent Day of the Dead in 2015 in Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border from California. Families swarmed the cemetery, bringing flowers and food offerings, some even hiring mariachi bands to sing ballads to their loved ones. This year, I visited small Day of the Dead alter exhibitions in the town square of Isla Mujeres (a tiny island across from Cancun) before heading to Mexico City to lead a bike-themed Day of the Dead trip. While large festivities are also held in the nearby provinces of Puebla, Oaxaca, and Michoacan, Mexico City is a fantastic place to celebrate the holiday, as the city puts on an elaborate parade, decorates the the zocalo main square and the popular Reforma Avenue with alters and sculpture installations, and holds a nocturnal Day of the Dead bike ride, attended by thousands of costumed cyclists. Hundreds of restaurants, bars, museums, bookstores, and just about any shop you can imagine across the city, displays a colorful alter, as do many homes, some of which even invite tourists in to view the alters.

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Each year, thousands of Mexicans and a fair amount of tourists flock to Mixquic, a community southeast of Mexico City that is known for its elaborate Day of the Dead celebration. Streets are lined with homemade and seemingly-professional alters and crowded with celebrators dressed in elaborate costumes; women offer intricate face paint designs for $1 or $2; and cemeteries are overflowing with flowers and candles. Traditional Mexican street food like tacos, tortas (sandwiches made on puffy telera bread), and grilled corn topped with mayonaise, cheese, and chili pepper are plentiful, in addition to the seasonal "dead bread" and ponche, a warm and sweet fruit punch full of chunks of guava, pear, plum, and sugar cane.

I included a trip to Mixquic in the group tour I led and will absolutely include it in subsequent tours, which I plan to hold every November. If interested in joining, please contact me!