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About Dia de los Muertos

The infamous "Day of the Dead" or dia de los muertos actually takes place over a period of five days from October 28th to November 2nd. It is the largest and most elaborate celebration in mexico all year long, even more grand than Christmas. In the past, this period marked the time when the deceased could return to the world of the living and visit their loved ones, but now it is usually a time to celetbrate, remember, and pray for their souls.


The celebration of dia de los muertos is an old indigenous belief that the Spanish tried and failed to suppress. Now it is a quasi-Christian holiday in Mexico, merging with All Souls' Day on November 1st. The festival's most important symbol, the skull, probably comes from the Aztec god of death, Mictlantecutli, who was depicted with a skull-like face on many artifacts. Now it is a symbol to celebrate death and the dearly departed. It is not uncommon to see skulls or skeletons sold as candy, toys, masks, or dolls during this time.

Sugar skulls decorated with frosting and foil

Because the bulk of Mexico's population is Catholic, they believe that all souls go to one of three places when they die, heaven, purgatory, or hell, dia de los muertos is more of a festive or family event. They pray, clean off family graves and decorate them. As a general rule, the more urban area the more of a celebratory atmosphere the festival has. For the areas that are more rural and/or indian, the holiday is much more religious and spiritual.

Most of North America celebrates Halloween and some of that has trickled down into Mexico. During the celebration of dia de los muertos, it is not uncommon to see children running around in masks asking passerbys for candy, small toys, or money while they hold out a plastic pumkin-bowl or character-head.

Many Mexicans are concerned over the detrimental influence this will have on the muertos celebration, but the parades and celebrations are still strong and they don't seem like they will die out anytime soon.

Different categories of deceased individuals are celebrated on different days.

October 28th: People who died violently, such as those who were victims of accidents, homicides, or people who committed suicide.
October 29th: Those who died unbaptized.
October 31st: Children who died after being baptized. (It is believed that upon death, they instantly became little angels and are thereafter known as angelitos.)
November 1st: All adults not covered in another category.

On October 31st, it is said that the angelitos come back at 3pm and return to their graves at 3pm on November 1st, which is the time the adults spirits return to the world.

How the deceased lived their life determines how the friends and family should decorate the altar (ofrenda) or grave. If the person smoked or drank often in life, then the family would most likely offer them a shotglass of mezcal and a pack of cigarettes. If they had a favorite candy or food, this would be placed on the ofrenda, as well. If they enjoyed gambling or fishing, a small plastic skeleton engaged in this activity would adorn the tomb or ofrenda.

Chocolate candy skulls
The calavera, or skeleton, is an important symbol during dia de muertos. Calaveras decorate the inside of shops and shop windows engaged in every daily activity imaginable dressed as judges, soldiers, housewives, soccer players, doctors, etc. Death, and the skeleton as Death, is seen in a much different way by the Mexicans than by most Westerners. It is seen in a mocking, cheerful light. A symbol that can be as jovial as it is serious, it appears countless times in countless ways during dia de muertos as wood, paper mache, sugar, plastic, etc.

There are two essential components of the muertos festival: the cemeteries and the parades, or comparsas. I would recommend seeing at least two of both. Make a visit to the cemeteries both during the day and during the night when they come alive with candlelight.

When my friend and I were down in Oaxaca for the "Day of the Dead" celebration, we soon discovered that while there was a lot going on for the celebration, it was hard to find out where and especially when any of it was. Everyone seemed to have a different opinion on the matter.

Several great areas to experience dia de los muertos are listed below. If anyone out there knows of any others, please email me and let me know so I can list them. These places are all in the Oaxaca area.

Parades / comparsas

1) Xoxocotlan (village cemetery)
2) Santa María Atzompa (village cemetery)
3) San Miguel (This is the cemetery of the city of Oaxaca.)
4) San Felipe del Agua (village cemetery)


1) Etla Valley (This is supposed to be one of the best places to see the parade. Find out from Oaxaca's local tourist agencies when the main parade is supposed to take place.)
2) Oaxaca City (The large parade here was difficult to pin down because so many people told us the wrong date/time, but it was on November 1st at 5pm outside the cathedral. All the photos in the Parade section were taken from this comparsa.)



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