Dia de los Muertos or in English, ‘Day of the Dead’ is a two-day celebration which is a blend of Spanish culture and European Catholicism brought to the region by the Conquistadors and the Indigenous Aztec rituals. Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November.
The celebration’s roots are primarily from the Aztecs and other Nahua people living in Central Mexico during the pre-Colombian Mesoamerica period. They believed to reach their final resting place of Mictlan, they had to accomplish nine challenges. During August, families would provide food, water and tools that they believed would help the deceased to reach Mictlan, this tradition continues to this day with families leaving offerings to their deceased on the Day of the Dead. In ancient Europe, pagan celebrations in the fall for the dead involved bonfires, feasting and dancing, while in Spain, families would bring wine and bread to their loved one’s graves and decorate them with flowers and candles on All Souls Day. The Roman Catholic Church incorporated All Souls Day and All Saints Day into their Catholic calendar as minor celebrations. When the conquistadors came to the region, they brought with them traditions from Europe, which ultimately contributed to the Day of the Dead traditions.
While Dia de los Muertos is widely recognised as a Mexican celebration, it’s also celebrated throughout Latin American countries. It’s a widely held belief that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on November 1st and the spirits of children can join their families in the celebrations for a 24-hour period and similarly that adult spirits do the same on the 2nd of November. The day’s purpose is to celebrate the lives of the dead with food, drink, parties and activities that the dead enjoyed while alive, rather than focusing on mourning. Family members either leave the deceased favourite foods on their grave or they set up ofrendas (altars) in their homes. The ofrendas are decorated with cempasuchil (marigolds) and candles are lit, their favourite foods and things that symbolise them are also placed there.
The symbol most would recognise and attribute to Dia de los Muertos is the calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). The skeleton originates from the Aztec goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl. The modern day take of this, is Calvera Catrina which is attributed to the 19th century cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada, who reinvented or modernised the original Aztec Goddess as La Calavera Catrina in a zinc etching. The Day of the Dead tradition is in fact growing due to pop culture. Movies like James Bond’s Spectre featuring a Day of the Dead Parade and Disney’s ‘Coco’ have brought the tradition world wide acclaim. Calavera Catrina now appears as candies, masks, dolls, souvenirs and costumes that are worn on the day and in parades.
Our Dia de los Muertos
During our stay at the boat yard in Puerto Penasco, we went to two Day of the Dead events – those in the boat yard with vehicles kindly drove us to each event. Our first was an altar expo held on the 31st of October at the Colegio de Bachilleres. Students had put together altars either of a deceased family member or a famous Mexican. The altars all had the common feature of marigolds, lit candles and food offerings. Some took it a step further with motorcycles and helmets, model boats and cars and their own Catarinas. I thought it was interesting, Andrew found it a little creepy.
The second event was held on Rodeo Drive on the 2nd of November, Ava’s birthday. The yard cattle truck was organised to transport the large group of yachtees wanting to participate in the event.
The street was closed off to road traffic and a stage erected at either end with dancing on one and judge’s awaiting the Catrina parade on the other. In between the two stages different stands were set up selling tacos, burritos and other Mexican fare. Some of the shop fronts had altars erected in front of their stores. Catrina statues and paraphernalia decorated the streets and offered photo opportunities for locals and tourists alike.
The favourite part of the evening for the teens was definitely visiting the face painting stand and selecting the colours they wanted for their own Catrina style skeletons.
The stand was popular with local kids and tourists. The ladies operating the stalls do so on a tip basis.
The evening culminates in a Catrina parade/competition which is open to all ages from tots to grandparents and male and female. The crowd around the stage was large and we had agreed to meet everyone soon after it had started. We watched for a few minutes and made our way back to the truck where the Catrinas were patiently waiting their turn on stage. Fortunately for us, the Catrinas who had already been on stage were happy to pose for photos with our excited teens, making them very happy.
I have to say that while the costumes were amazing, the makeup was too. Its bewildering how black and white face paint can not only hollow out cheeks but create a realistic mouth of teeth that looks like a skeleton. The ladies were very happy to pose for photos. In fact the lady in cream also had her son dressed and participating in the event, somewhat reluctantly.
The teenage girls in our group were a little freaked out with the women’s eyes. If you look closely you will see that they are wearing coloured contacts that are a milky blue colour.
Andrew enjoyed the food, the kids loved the face painting and I loved the costumes and photo opportunities. It was a blast!