Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday celebrated in Mexico and by many people of Mexican descent in the US. The holiday focuses on gatherings to remember deceased friends and family members. Traditionally, the celebration occurs in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2)—large celebrations in the US tend to be less tied to these dates, partly due to the fact that Americans also celebrate Halloween.
Día de los Muertos and Halloween have some commonalities—they both come from early beliefs about death that later mixed with Christianity, and they are both based on the idea that the spirits of the dead return among the living at the same time of year. The key difference between the holidays is that Halloween stems from the idea that the returning spirits are malevolent, whereas Día de los Muertos joyfully welcomes the spirits of loved ones.
Día de los Muertos in Mexico
Oaxaca City, Oaxaca
Día de los Muertos is the most time-honored and expressive holiday in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and this is where you’ll find the most traditional celebrations. In Oaxaca City, festivities begin the week before the actual holiday with the elaborate Plaza de los Muertos commencement in each city market. Final preparations take place the night of Oct. 31, bringing the whole community and generations of families together at the cemeteries Nov. 1–2. There is a saying in Oaxaca, “We are not here for a long time, we are here for a good time,” so expect people to be lively and animated rather than somber or serious.
Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco
As in other parts of Mexico, the two-day Día de los Muertos period is devoted to honoring deceased friends and relatives. Nov. 1 is reserved for recalling the spirits of children who have passed on, and Nov. 2 is for honoring other relative and friends. Street vendors throughout the city provide hundred of folk art items prominently featuring calacas (skeletons).
Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas
Chiapa de Corzo, a quiet colonial town between Tuxtla Gutiérrez and San Cristóbal de las Casas, is renowned for its Día de los Muertos celebration. The local cemetery is festooned with colorful ribbons, flowers, and ofrendas (offerings), and musicians stroll among the grave sites to serenade the returning spirits.
Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo
Traditional Día de los Muertos celebrations take place throughout the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, but because Playa del Carmen is a major tourist destination its festivities feel more like performance or exhibition for visitors. Xcaret Park celebrates its 5th Annual Life and Death Traditions Festival Oct. 30–Nov.2 with a mosaic of colors, traditions, and activities. This year, the festivities focus on Chiapas to promote the arts and traditions of Chiapas. Admission is $25 per person in addition to regular park admission ($69 adult, $34.50 children).
Día de los Muertos in the US
Los Angeles, CA
Part traditional Day of the Dead celebration and part costume party, the 11th Annual Dia de Los Muertos at the historical Hollywood Forever Cemetery is an updated, inter-cultural event taking place on Oct. 30 from 2:00 p.m. to midnight. Admission is $10. Attendees are encouraged to dress in their finest calaca gear for the costume contest. There is also an altar contest. You’ll need to set up your altar the day before if you want to participate. Be sure to have a parking strategy before you arrive; spaces are very limited.
Photo courtesy of LAVisitor
The Desert Botanical Garden starts their celebration early this year with Cuisine and Culture of Día de los Muertos ($45 member, $55 non-member) on Oct. 28, exploring the important role cuisine plays in the holiday. The main Día de los Muertos celebration, however, is Oct. 30–31 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. ($15 adults, $13.50 seniors, $7.50 ages 13–18, $5 ages 3–12, free for garden members and children under 3). It brings the history of the holiday to life through song, dance, storytelling, and art. The garden has also invited 10 local artists to create Día de los Muertos ofrendas for display Oct. 21–Nov. 2.
San Francisco, CA
The Marigold Project presents San Francisco’s Annual Festival of Altars on Nov. 2 from 4:00–10:30 p.m. in Garfield Park this year. This grassroots event is family-friendly (no smoking or drinking) and open to the community (free admission). Participants are encouraged to bring flowers, candles, and mementos to place on the altars to remember loved ones.
San Antonio, TX
The city of San Antonio offers several ways for residents and visitors alike to celebrate—Rather than one main event, Día de los Muertos in San Antonio “is a colorful flurry of traditional and contemporary festivities” from late Oct. through mid-Nov. The San Antonio Calaveras website has an excellent round up of the various events.
It’s no surprise that Boston’s largest Latino enclave (the Jamaica Plain neighborhood) also hosts the city’s largest Day of the Dead celebration on Nov. 2 from 4–6 p.m. at the Forest Hills Cemetery. This Day of the Dead event embraces the continuous cycle of life and death through a program of music and dance. This is a bilingual event open to the public. Participants are encouraged to bring altar offerings, dress warmly, and bring a flashlight.
Albuquerque offers several Day of the Dead celebrations. The National Hispanic Cultural Center invites students, teachers, and the general public to contribute to a community ofrenda on Nov. 2–3 at 10:00 a.m. both days. Events wrap up on Nov. 7 with the South Valley Día de los Muertos Marigold Parade. The parade starts at 4 p.m., followed by a festival with music and entertainment at the Westside Community Center until 8 p.m.
Cleveland’s 6th Annual Day of the Dead features face painting and a mask workshop for children, a parade, ofrendas by local artists, dance, and live music. The event will be held Nov. 6–7 at the Cleveland Public Theatre East Campus from noon to 10 p.m. each day and is open to the public.
Photo “Looking Ahead” by TJ Morales licensed Creative Commons Attribution.