Día de Muertos in Mexico City


This year, for the first time, I found myself in Mexico for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), and I was excited to witness this most Mexican of occasions here in Mexico, though I wasn’t sure that Mexico City would necessarily be the best place. For Day of the Dead activities, tourists tend to flock to Pátzcuaro or Oaxaca or some other smaller Mexican town.  Mixquic, a small community in the Tláhuac delegation of the federal district, attracts many tourists wanting to experience Day of the Dead celebrations, so I considered going there, but a number of Chilangos warned me that it would be an uncomfortably overcrowded place on Day of the Dead.  It turned out that I was able to see plenty of Day of the Dead activities in Mexico City without going to Mixquic, largely thanks to the efforts of my private Spanish tutor, Ernesto.

As I understand it, “Día de los Muertos,” which is the name many people give to the holiday in the United States, is a back translation of “Day of the Dead.” In Mexico, people usually say, “Día de Muertos.”


Day of the Dead is a two-day celebration, the first and second of November, and of course it follows Halloween, which many people in Mexico City do celebrate.  Several houses in La Condesa were decked out for Halloween this year, and on October 31st, I saw a few children trick-or-treating in the neighborhood.  But mainly Halloween is just an excuse for more Day of the Dead activities.  I saw people in Halloween costumes, but a huge majority of them were dressed as Catrinas or Catrines, the name Diego Rivera gave to the Mexican skeleton figure created in the early 20th Century by José Guadalupe Posada that has since become an emblem of Day of the Dead.

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A house decorated for Halloween in La Condesa.



There were several Day of the Dead events on Halloween, including a nighttime bike ride (with riders dressed as Catrina or Catrin) and a desfile (parade) of Catrinas and Catrines in the Historic Center.  I went to the zócalo on Halloween night, where the city had erected a huge stage (on which nothing seemed to be happening) and several enormous ofrendas (altars with offerings). There was a fascinating indigenous dance performance in one corner of the Zócalo, and lots of people in costumes were wandering about.

A giant skeleton rides a unicycle in the zócalo on Halloween night.


When I was in the Zócalo on Halloween night, nothing seemed to be happening on this stage, though it looked awfully cool. I’m sure there was a concert or something after I left the Zócalo in search of dinner.

On November 1st, the first Day of the Dead, I participated in the ciclovía (as I always do), but this time many of the other cyclists had skeleton face paint.  I biked to the historic center and then wandered around looking at ofrendas.  La Calle de Regina, a pedestrian street full of cafes and restaurants, had been turned into an open air gallery of ofrendas, both ofrendas tradicionales and ofrendas contemporáneas.  The ofrendas usually feature skeletons, often dressed in traditional Mexican garb and doing things one doesn’t expect a skeleton to do–playing guitar, riding a bicycle, surfing.  The more traditional ones display photos of deceased loved ones, or deceased historical figures, and offerings of bread, fruits, vegetables, and beverages.  There’s often copal being burned in a censer, and there are nearly always marigolds and/or interesting arrangements of marigold petals.  According to Ernesto, the scent of marigolds is believed to help the dead find their way to Day of the Dead celebrations.

One of the many traditional ofrendas on Calle de Regina in the Historic Center.
A “contemporary” ofrenda on Calle de Regina.

On Saturday night, Ernesto arranged an excursion for his students (and several of their friends) to the Megaofrenda at the UNAM.  Every year, UNAM faculty and students create an enormous display of artistic ofrendas, and each year, the university chooses a Mexican historical figure to dedicate the ofrendas to. This year it was José María Morelos, a hero in the Mexican War of Independence.  Many of the skeletons in the ofrendas were dressed like Morelos, with his signature headscarf, or were acting out historical scenes in which Morelos was involved.

A mural depicting the corpse of José María Morelos.
There’s a Xoloitzcuintle (a Mexican hairless dog) at the feet of Morelos’s corpse in this mural. Ernesto explained to us that, in indigenous Mexican cultures, these dogs were believed to be guides for the dead in the spirit world.


The library at the UNAM, covered in murals by Juan O’Gorman. This has nothing to do with Day of the Dead, but I love this building, and it’s especially beautiful when it’s lit up at night.

On Monday, November 2nd, Ernesto met me in a subway station and took me to Xochimilco, the southernmost delegation of el DF and a part of the city known for traditional Mexican culture.  We first went to the Dolores Olmedo Museum, which is famous for its collection of art by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, though on Day of the Dead, the main attraction is a huge ofrenda constructed by artists from around the country.  This ofrenda is so popular that we had to stand in line for an hour just to get into the building that housed it.  This year, the exhibition highlighted the link between Mexico’s biodiversity and the different kinds of arts and crafts that exist throughout the country.  It also featured pieces from the Museum of Popular Art and the Dolores Olmedo Museum’s collection of popular art.

The Ofrenda at the Dolores Olmedo Museum.

After we had seen the ofrenda at the museum, we took a microbus to the center of Xochimilco and had a lunch of tlocoyos and quesadillas de huitlacoche in the mercado there.  (Ernesto told me that these two activities–riding a microbus and eating in the mercado–were probably the most authentically Mexican things I’d ever done.)   We tried to go to the panteón (cemetery) behind the cathedral in Xochimilco, only to be told that it was closed and that there were no Day of the Dead activities there.  We were advised to go instead to the Panteon de Xilotepec, in La Noria, just a few miles away, so we boarded another microbus and headed in that direction.

There was a festive atmosphere in the Panteón de Xilotepec.  Food and drink were being sold at the entrance to the cemetery.  Inside, graves had been cleaned up and decorated, mainly with marigold petals and candles.  Ernesto told me that the graves of people who died young are typically adorned with balloons.  Families were seated around graves, “visitando a sus muertos,” as Ernesto explained, visiting their dead.  They drank and talked and laughed.  I felt like I was intruding on private family gatherings as I meandered about with my camera, but as I walked past one family, a man reached out and affectionately patted me on the shoulder.  Wandering mariachis went from grave to grave, playing the favorite songs of the deceased.  Vendedores ambulantes roamed around selling snacks.  Many people spend the night in the cemetery, I was told.  Mostly I saw groups of people camped out by graves, but there were also a few solitary figures keeping lonely vigils beside tombstones.


Mariarchis perform at a grave in the Panteón de Xilotepec on Day of the Dead.
The graves of those who died young are often decorated with balloons.
I find myself charmed and moved by this tradition–remembering, honoring, and communing with the dead, contemplating our connection to them and our own mortality.  These days, Day of the Dead is celebrated in the United States in areas with large Mexican/Mexican-American populations, including the Bay Area–and it’s just one example of the many ways that immigration from Latin America is enriching life in the US.

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