The Best Celebrations In The US And Mexico For Dia De Los Muertos

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If you read the headline, “Día de los Muertos” and thought to yourself, “Ah! Mexican Halloween!,” well, you would be wrong. Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” is a Mexican tradition began by the Aztecs in central America more than 3,000 years ago, to celebrate (not mourn) the lives of deceased loved ones.

Spaniards who arrived in the Americas in the early 16th century viewed the celebrations as sacrilegious and tried their best to stamp it out in the name of Christianity, not realizing that the day was not about worshipping the dead, it was about learning to laugh at death instead of fear it. Families of the dead create ofrendas, or altars — in honor of those who have passed on — replete with ornate flowers, photos, candles, and little something special that family member would have loved, like a favorite food or item of clothing, and for some, a shot of mezcal.

Today,Dia de los Muertos is still evolving and elements of it have mixed with the pagan celebration of Halloween as well as the Catholic traditions of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, spanning from October 31 – November 2. Since the holiday is celebrated most widely in Mexico and the US, we tracked down the best places to party in those two countries.

Zozocolco de Hidalgo, Veracruz, Mexico

What better place to celebrate a Mexican tradition than Mexico? Zozocolco, in the state of Veracruz, is no stranger to festivals, so it’s no wonder the city throws one heck of a Día de los Muertos celebration. Visit Mexico calls the city’s festival “unequalled,” as it is more of a cultural festival than it is simply a celebration for the day. The city honors those who have passed on with the usual flowers, candles, and food, but also offers a calaveritas contest where writers can share brief poems, either mocking or revering death, or honoring deceased loved ones.

Also on the activity list are totonaco lessons, where visitors can learn phrases and how to count in the language of the native Totonac peoples of the eastern coastal and mountainous regions of Mexico. Revelers can then enjoy folk music of the indigenous Huastec peoples of Gulf of Mexico who are known for playing the huapanguera — aka the little guitar we see being played in mariachi bands. Día de los Muertos in Zozocolco not only honors people who are no longer with us; it honors traditions and tribes that are dwindling and seeks to bring them back into the light, even if just for a couple of days.

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Photo by @christian_foto ( Christian Rodriguez ) La Calavera Catrina ('Dapper Skeleton', 'Elegant Skull') is a 1910–1913 zinc etching by famous Mexican printmaker, cartoon illustrator and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. The image depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a hat befitting the upper class outfit of a European of her time. Her chapeau en attende is related to European styles of the early 20th century. The culture of La Calavera Catrina's has ties to political satire and is also a well-kept tradition as the original was inspired by the polarizing reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz, whose accomplishments in modernizing and bringing financial stability to Mexico pale against his government's repression, corruption, extravagance and obsession with all things European. Concentration of fantastic wealth in the hands of the privileged few brewed discontent in the hearts of the suffering many, leading to the 1910 rebellion that toppled Diaz in 1911 and became the Mexican Revolution. She also symbolizes the contrasts between the upper and lower classes, for times were cruel. The social classes were extremely segmented and the highest class was the most fortunate, enjoying many privileges; in contrast, the lower classes were nearly invisible. To explain and rescue the folklore of worshiping the dead, while showing this off to high society, José Guadalupe Posada made caricatures of Death, one of these drawings being the famous calavera with an elegant hat, though only representing the head and bust with a sophisticated and skeletal essence Portrait in Naolinco, Veracruz, Mexico. ​Photo by @christian_foto #naolinco​ #catrina #díademuertos #dayofthedead #veracruz #mexico #méxicomágico

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Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico

If you want to keep it 100% ethnic, Santiago de Querétaro boasts of one of the most “deep-rooted indigenous communities” in Mexico, and their Día de los Muertos celebrations reflect that. The town squares display flamboyant altars to the passing souls with influences from the Chichimec and Otomi peoples. The most popular festival in the historic center in the capital features cultural activities for the whole family — with sugar skulls, papel picado, or craft made out of paper cut into beautiful and elaborate designs, and bright cempasúchitl flowers.

The entire city is full of color and activity to celebrate the day of “joyous mourning.”

‘La Gran Feria de Tlaxcala” in Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala, Mexico

In one of the coolest coincidences ever, the Tlaxcala Fair coincides with the Day of the Dead every year in Tlaxcala, Mexico. The coincidence makes the celebration for the holiday that much bigger — spanning the entire length of the city.

Much like our rodeos and fairs, the event features bullfighting, gambling, and the traditional decorations like papel picado, flowers, and altars. The Great Festival in Tlaxcala intertwines indigenous and Spanish traditions for a cultural experience full of magic and prayers, folklore and hymns, and foods that people of any belief system can enjoy.

Mexico City, Mexico

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Want to be in the center of it all? Mexico City is known for its larger-than-life Día de los Muertos parades where thousands of people storm the streets in revelry and pay homage to those who have passed on from this life. Everyone gets into it, and this year, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing raced in full Day of the Dead face paint to join in on the celebrations as he drove.

As we all know, Mexico City experienced great loss this year after an earthquake devastated the city, and this year’s celebrations are paying the victims special honors during the parades. It’s great to see la ciudad bounce back so quickly after such a tragedy. The message of this holiday is even more important this year: Death is not to be feared, it is to be celebrated as a completion of life and a time of remembrance.

Olvera Street in Los Angeles, California

Merchants on Olvera Street in Los Angeles have been throwing a festival to celebrate Día de los Muertos for more than 30 years. The Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation, whose motto is “preserving our past to enlighten our future,” focuses the fest on incorporating pre-Columbian, Aztec, Mayan, and Catholic rituals surrounding death.

Complete with a 5K run, the “Carrera de Los Muertos 5k,” the event exists to unite the community of the Day of the Dead with altars on display, children’s workshops, face painting, and entertainment throughout the nine day event.

Day of the Dead Xicágo – Chicago
October 29, November 4

Chicago, as far from the Mexican border as it is, has a really wonderful Día de los Muertos celebration. Aptly named the Day of the Dead Xicágo, the celebration is hosted by the National Museum of Mexican Art. Attendees will not only be able to participate in the usual events like face painting, eating, music, and dancing, they will also be able to experience the museum’s full art collection, with artist Fernando Sica drawing live illustrations to be projected on the side of the building.

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Animated projections outside. #DODXicago

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Florida Day of the Dead – Ft. Lauderdale

Who would have expected one of the livest Día de los Muertos celebrations to take place in Ft. Lauderdale? Day of the Dead Florida just so happens to be the jam, though, with papel picado, ofrendas, shadow puppets, a folkloric dance workshop, and so much more. The festival ends with a skeleton processional, complete with lowriders, mariachis, giants floats, and a 16-foot Frida Kahlo.

Florida’s Day of the Dead celebration does a wonderful job of combining Mexican-American culture with that of the traditions of pre-Spanish-era Mexico.

South Valley Día de los Muertos Marigold Parade and Celebration – Albuquerque, New Mexico

For the 25th year, Albuquerque’s South Valley will hold its annual Día de los Muertos “Muertos y Marigolds” parade. The parade planners draw their inspiration from Mexican culture, of course, but specifically from Jose Guadalupe Posada’s early 1900’s portrayal of personalities and professions as skeletons, or “calaveras.” Posada’s influence provides for a particularly interesting experience, as rich and poor alike are depicted as skeletons in ordinary life settings, giving Posada a chance to make political statements with his widely-circulated prints that were full of satire and comedy.