On the weekend before Halloween this year, the first I’d spent away from friends, I thought we might have made the wrong decision in moving to Mexico. It felt lonely: friends in Manhattan were hosting a murder mystery, friends in Brooklyn screening scary movies, friends in LA dressed in elaborate costumes for house parties. Here and there, in our Mexican neighborhood, I’d spot a kid in a crappy storebought Superman costume, holding the hand of a plain-clothes parent who pushed them towards passerby to hold out a plastic pumpkin and ask for candy or money.
But Halloween has nothing on Dia de los Muertos. The holidays are different: Dia de los Muertos, which takes place on November 1 and 2, is a slightly more somber, family-oriented holiday, meant to celebrate the memories of people who have passed on. The first day is dedicated to honoring the deaths of children and teenagers, the second is for adults.
The holidays are beginning to blend in Mexico City, to move away from the traditional to become more tourist-friendly – for the first time, Mexico City put on an enormous parade in the Zocalo to recreate the opening scene from the latest Bond film. They knew tourists who had seen the film would come to Mexico looking for such a spectacle, so the government responded with a million costumed citizens squeezed into the square. Children wore Halloween costumes, teenagers sported sweatshirts and skeletal facepaint, but few went all out in the elaborate getups I’d associated with Day of the Dead.
I was familiar with a few things about Dia de los Muertos before experiencing it firsthand: Hot Bread Kitchen taught me about pan de muerto, a sweet bread decorated with crossbones that’s eaten in the weeks leading up to the holiday. I knew about La Calavera Catrina, the elegant skeletal figure typically depicted in a large hat and fancy dress, and for years in the US, had seen people appropriating the decorative skull facepaint and floral crown Mexicans don to imitate Catrina and her partner Catrin.
So when Robbie’s coworker invited us to join he and his wife on a drive to San Andres Mixquic, a tiny puebla known for its elaborate ofrendas (altars to the dead) and festive celebration, we jumped at the opportunity. Two hours outside the city, we found a street fair sporting skull-shaped chocolates, candles, cakes, and ceramics, with food to make fried oreos and turkey legs look like airplane peanuts. I’m talking the full gamut of Vitamina T: tacos, tortas, toastadas, tamales, tlacoyos … plus meat on a stick for Robbie, and a gigantic huitlacoche y queso quesadilla for me. We wandered, drunk on smells and sights, through booths peddling fried grasshoppers and Oaxacan chocolate, and paid 10 pesos each to follow a sign for La Mirada. The View could be found through a middle aged couple’s house. The ofrenda in their entryway honored the matriarch’s father, a doctor, and brother who had passed away in the devastating earthquake of ’85. It was decorated with candles, bottles of tequila (“my father’s favorite”), cans of beer, wrapped candies and a plate of tamales. We paid our respects and ascended a set of stairs, their yippy chihuaha barking at our heels, to a rooftop that looked out on the town’s church and cemetery. The cemetery was a riot of orange and purple – marigolds and maroon coxcomb are the flowers of the season and symbols of the holiday. Families filled makeshift vases (emptied out cans of jalapenos or tomato sauce) with elaborate bouquets, lit tall white candles and scattered petals on gravestones in the symbols of the cross.
Afterwards, we followed the sounds of clogging to check out a dance performance, with different groups dressed in the traditional costumes of their regions. Finally, as rain started to fall, we found a group of teenagers who were applying skull makeup for 40 pesos per person. Robbie wanted his face painted (and duh, I’d been waiting for the okay since we arrived) – Sofia, his coworker’s wife, said she’d do it with us. The whole thing took almost an hour, and we sat watching the artists at work on kids clutching iPhone photos of the version they wanted: hollowed eyes, bejeweled foreheads, intricately shadowed cheekbones. When it was our turn, Sofia requested “ojos ovalados, no redondos” – the danger is having your Dia de los Muertos makeup appear more cutesy panda than ghoulish Catrina. Our countenances complete, we found our way back to the cemetery, where candles and mist lent an even spookier ambience. It was crowded, and as we pushed past photographers and tourists with selfie sticks who asked to take our photos, we started feeling uncomfortable.
Families huddled together under umbrellas at the gravesites they’d spent all day decorating in memory of their loved ones, and we joined the onlookers to squeeze past, snapping photos, sometimes unable to avoid literally stepping on graves.
It was both a beautiful day and a reminder of what the quest for authenticity can bring. We traveled two hours to see a town whose celebration had become spectacle. Faces itchy with makeup and bellies full of fried food, we drove home in the rain, feeling a little queasy.