The crowds were astonishing. Mexico City is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and it felt like every one of its more-than 21.6 million inhabitants had descended on the wide avenue of the Paseo de la Reforma to enjoy the spectacle of the annual Day of the Dead parade.
My boyfriend and I had spent the morning out of town, exploring the monumental pyramids at Teotihuacan (Mexico’s largest archaeological site, see CWA 76 and 81), and so arrived far too late to bag a spot anywhere near the metal barriers lining the parade route. We were not disheartened, though, and not alone in our determination to catch a glimpse of the celebrations despite the crush. Undeterred by late October drizzle, people were packed shoulder to shoulder, many rows deep, as far as we could see, but some intrepid individuals had scrambled up trees or onto bus shelters for a better view over the massed ranks. ‘When in Mexico City…!’, we said, shinning partway up a lamppost – a chilly, uncomfortable perch to cling to, but one that rewarded our efforts.
Over the throng, we watched a dazzling array of floats and giant puppets; dancers dressed as skeletons or in indigenous costumes; and enormous balloons depicting Mexican marine life. Look here: a larger-than-life effigy of one of the city’s favourite daughters, Frida Kahlo; look there: a series of huge skeleton puppets hung with sashes bearing names from popular culture. A trio of Spanish galleons with billowing sails was quickly followed by a cloud of iridescent hummingbirds that dipped and swooped at the end of flexible poles, while darker themes were represented by a float carrying ranks of skull-masked performers arranged like a living tzompantli (the ceremonial skull racks on which the Aztecs displayed the crania of human sacrifices).
This visual feast was a fitting celebration of a festival deemed so integral to Mexican culture that in 2008 it was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Day of the Dead has far-reaching roots, blending Pre-Columbian and Catholic traditions, but the parade itself is a recent addition, founded only in 2016. The inspiration? The opening scene of the most recent James Bond film, Spectre (released in 2015), in which the spy chases his adversary through a procession of revelers dressed as skeletons. This popularity of this sequence inspired the Mexico Tourist Board to launch a real-life version: one more colourful addition to festivities that have evolved over hundreds of years, adding a host of distinctive elements along the way.
The origins of El Día de Muertos are traditionally linked to a month-long summer festival associated with Mictecacihuatl, Aztec goddess of the underworld. With the Spanish invasion of 1519 and the arrival of Christianity, the dates shifted to coincide with the Church’s observation of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on 1-2 November. In Catholic liturgy, these festivals officially commemorate the saints and the faithful departed, but in Mexico the focus is rather different, honouring deceased children on 1 November and adults the following day.
Part thoughtful religious ceremony, part carnival, the Day of the Dead is a fascinating mix of the intimate and the irreverent, cheerfully acknowledging the inevitability of death by honouring ancestors and throwing a massive party. During the festivities, the souls of deceased loved ones are welcomed back into homes with ofrendas – altars heaped with their favourite food and drinks, flowers and photographs – while families also gather in local cemeteries to clean, restore, and decorate the graves of relatives.
As with any party, there are special treats and decorations: some 20 miles south of the city centre, in a canal-cut neighbourhood called Xochimilco (built on the remains of a network of Aztec waterways), we visited a market whose stalls were laden with pan de muerto, a sweet bread made with egg yolks, and tiny sugar skulls decorated with bright icing. Others sold stacks of intricately cut sheets of colourful tissue-paper bunting called papel picado, while the heavy scent of incense provided a potent reminder of the festival’s religious underpinnings.
On to Oaxaca
The 2018 Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City was held on 27 October, the Saturday before the holiday; for the festival itself, we travelled to Oaxaca, a city almost 300 miles further south-east, with about a tenth of the population. Mexico City’s urban spectacle had been impressively grand in scale – with enormous public ofrendas set up in the main square, and pavements populated by giant skulls and fantastical sculptures of alebrijes (hybrid creatures that are a popular, if relatively modern, motif created by the artist Pedro Linares in the 1930s) – but our new destination was no less fascinating for being smaller.
Within Oaxaca’s main square, overlooked by colonial-era buildings constructed from the distinctive local green stone, we found both elaborate ofrendas and a regional tradition, tapetes de arena, or ‘sand tapestries’. Formed by pouring coloured sand in intricate patterns, these images stem from local funerary customs: when someone dies, a sand tapestry is created in their home and family and friends gather to pray for nine days. At the end of this period, the sand is swept up and scattered over the grave.
Such home-spun traditions were also reflected in the side streets, which were hung with strings of orange marigolds. Known as cempasúchitl or flor de muertos, they were also honoured by the Aztecs, who depicted them at religious sites like the Templo Mayor, main temple of Tenochtitlan whose remains lie within Mexico City. The blooms lining the streets, we were told, led to the city’s cemeteries. Mexican tradition holds that their bright colour and strong scent help guide the dead back to their family homes. In the evenings, hundreds of kerbside candles followed the same route, a poignant reminder that beneath the colour, music, and sugar-fuelled fun ran a more contemplative current.
Skeletons and surfboards
In contrast to these more thoughtful themes, the city’s celebrations were positively riotous. Several times a day we heard the pounding of a bass drum followed by squealing clarinets and the brighter tones of trumpets, heralding the approach of a comparsa – informally organised small parades made up of bands, costumed dancers, twirling paper shapes, and giant puppets. Their raw, spontaneous feel was only enhanced by a joyfully reckless approach to health and safety, with fireworks shooting sparks perilously close to the delighted crowds as they wound through the narrow streets.
As in Mexico City, skeletons were a dominant theme for both costumes and decorations – imagery with a long-held resonance in Mexican culture. Many of the Aztec gods were skeletal in form: Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld, was depicted as a flayed body, while her cadaverous co-ruler and husband Mictlantecuhtli often had a skull for a head. (A looming statue of the latter deity, all grinning teeth and exposed organs, is displayed at Templo Mayor, where it was excavated.) The skeleton most commonly associated with the Day of the Dead is a more recent creation, however.
Throughout our travels we saw countless images of a skeleton dressed in an ostentatious broad-brimmed hat. La Calavera Catrina, the ‘elegant skull’, is one of the most recognisable emblems of the Day of the Dead, though this character is barely 100 years old. It was created by the lithographer José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) as a political satire on indigenous Mexicans who were shunning their traditions in favour of European ways. Ironically, today La Catrina is very much a part of Mexican culture – and the subject of thousands of Day of the Dead costumes.
Images like La Catrina highlight how the Day of the Dead has happily absorbed new ideas over the years – something that was particularly clear as our travels drew to an end and we headed to the laid-back surfers’ haven of Puerto Escondido. Nestled on the Pacific Coast, the aptly named ‘hidden port’ felt like another world, far from the hectic celebrations that we had left behind. Tucked among the beachfront bars, though, we found a small ofrenda surrounded by surfboards stuck in the sand like colourful stelae – a touching example of later generations finding new relevance in long-held ways, and adding their own twist to the traditions.
Living with the dead
Breaking away from the joyful noise of the city centre, in the mountains above Oaxaca we found a haven of quiet – and another example of the desire to keep ancestors close. Founded c.500 BC, the city of Monte Albán dominated surrounding valleys for 1,300 years as the civic and ceremonial capital of the Zapotec people. The settlement represents an astonishing architectural achievement, covering some 2.5 square miles on an artificially levelled plateau commanding a spectacular view over the surrounding landscape.
At its heart lies a 300m-long rectangular plaza, which is bookended by staircases formed from huge blocks of stone. This space is overlooked by the rugged remains of ball courts, elite buildings, and pyramid temples that echo the mountain peaks that can be seen in all directions, while further imposing structures form a spine down the centre of the plaza itself. One of these, Building J, has long represented an archaeological enigma: its curious arrowhead shape makes it unique on the site, as does its eccentric orientation. For now its purpose remains obscure, but a proposed astronomical function has led to it being nicknamed ‘the observatory’.
On the fringes of this ceremonial centre are scattered the homes of Monte Albán’s inhabitants, who seem to have had a convivial attitude towards the dead: rather than exiling the deceased to separate cemeteries, their remains were buried beneath houses or in tombs dug under the central patios of larger dwellings.
ALL PHOTOS: Carly Hilts, unless otherwise state.