El Día de los Muertos

While we’re in La Paz getting some much needed attention to our engine, we’ve been soaking up some of the local culture and cuisine. Our latest outing was an excursion to the Festival de Día de Muertos, a two-evening festival celebrating The Day of the Dead. There were displays of altars to the dead, a competition for those dressed as Catrinas and Calaveras, children’s workshops, traditional foods, and entertainment all evening on stage. It’s a huge family event, a great La Paz tradition, and it’s free!

I think the entire population of La Paz was there as it was standing room only, and we seemed to be the only gringos around.  It was amazing to be in such a crowd of happy people all sharing their traditions; music all around, the tasty aroma from the many food stands, the sound of kids laughter.  We walked around viewing the altars, had a couple of tamales de res and mango empanadas, then found a seat to enjoy the music and a play being performed on stage.  We couldn’t understand the dialog, but we just joined in with our neighbors when they laughed..ha!

Not to be confused with Halloween, Dia de los Muertos is its own entity, when souls of deceased loved ones are welcomed home in Mexico, where friends and family have prepared for their arrival for weeks. The souls of children arrive one day prior at midnight Oct. 31, and the adult souls are welcomed home the following night. Born out of the Aztec festival for the goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl, and the Catholic Spanish conquistadors’ All Saints/Souls Day, the modern tradition has become a Mexican National Holiday and the country’s biggest celebration of the year.

Candy skulls, chocolates, sweet bread and candles are prepared to present at altars and gravesites of the deceased. Cemeteries are adorned with hundreds of candles to light the way home.  Alters are erected in homes and furnished with food and drink to nourish the dead, decorated with the symbolic Mexican flower of death, the Marigold. Even a bar of soap and a mirror might be presented in case the deceased would like to freshen up. The dead receive a warm and festive welcome from the living during the observance of el Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.

Another major focus of the festival is the parade of Catrinas. These are ladies, young girls, and even a few men, who dress in elaborate costumes and stroll around the grounds for all to see. The outfits that they wear are incredibly detailed, with lace and ribbons, hats with huge feathers, and one lady was even on stilts!  I read up on what the Catrina is all about and it’s really an interesting history.  The skeleton lady was created by lithographer and printer Jose Guadalupe Posada around 1910 as an illustration, and it has since become a national icon.

The Day of the Dead highlights one of the greatest differences between Mexican and U.S. cultures; the 180-degree divide between attitudes toward death. Mexicans keep death and their dead loved ones close, treating it with familiarity, even hospitality, instead of dread. Catrina embodies that, and has come to symbolize not only El Día de los Muertos and the Mexican willingness to laugh at death itself, but originally Catrina was an elegant or well-dressed woman, so it refers to rich people. Catrina reminds us that death is the great neutralizer; everyone is equal in the end.


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