Oct 162018
 

Celebrations for Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) or, more correctly Night of the Dead (Noche de Muertos), date back to pre-Hispanic times. Indigenous Mexican peoples held many strong beliefs connected with death; for example that the dead needed the same things as the living, hence their bodies should be buried with their personal possessions, sandals and other objects.

With the arrival of the Spanish, the Indians’ pagan ideas and customs were gradually assimilated into the official Catholic calendar. Dead children (angelitos) are remembered on November 1st, All Saints’ Day, while deceased adults are honored on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day. On both days, most of the activity takes place in the local cemetery.

In many locations, festivities (processions, altars, concerts, meals, dancing, etc) now last several days, often beginning several days before the main days of November 1st and 2nd.

Day of the Dead: Top Nine Locations

Day of the Dead: Top Nine Locations

The Day of the Dead was designated an “intangible world heritage” by UNESCO in 2008. The official UNESCO description of Mexico’s “Indigenous Festivity dedicated to the Dead” summarizes its significance:

“As practised by the indigenous communities of Mexico, el Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) commemorates the transitory return to Earth of deceased relatives and loved ones. The festivities take place each year at the end of October to the beginning of November. This period also marks the completion of the annual cycle of cultivation of maize, the country’s predominant food crop.”

“Families facilitate the return of the souls to Earth by laying flower petals, candles and offerings along the path leading from the cemetery to their homes. The deceased’s favorite dishes are prepared and placed around the home shrine and the tomb alongside flowers and typical handicrafts, such as paper cut-outs. Great care is taken with all aspects of the preparations, for it is believed that the dead are capable of bringing prosperity (e.g. an abundant maize harvest) or misfortune (e.g. illness, accidents, financial difficulties) upon their families depending on how satisfactorily the rituals are executed. The dead are divided into several categories according to cause of death, age, sex and, in some cases, profession. A specific day of worship, determined by these categories, is designated for each deceased person. This encounter between the living and the dead affirms the role of the individual within society and contributes to reinforcing the political and social status of Mexico’s indigenous communities.”

The Day of the Dead celebration holds great significance in the life of Mexico’s indigenous communities. The fusion of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Catholic feasts brings together two universes, one marked by indigenous belief systems, the other by worldviews introduced by the Europeans in the sixteenth century.”

Here, in no particular order, are 9 of the best places to visit for Mexico’s Day of the Dead:

1. Michoacán

The single best-known location for Day of the Dead in the entire country is the Island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. This is one of Mexico’s most famous major annual spectacles. Thousands of visitors from all over the world watch as the indigenous Purepecha people perform elaborate rituals in the local cemetery late into the night. Yes, it has become commercialized, but it remains a memorable experience, and also offers the opportunity to sample the local cuisine, which itself was declared an “intangible world heritage” by UNESCO in 2010!

Janitzio cemetery

Janitzio cemetery

Several other locations in the Lake Pátzcuaro area, including Ihuatzio, Tzintzuntzan, Arocutín and Jarácuaro, offer their own equally memorable (but less visited) festivities and rituals. Interesting observances of Day of the Dead also occur in many other places in Michoacán, including Angahuan (near Paricutin Volcano) and Cuanajo.

2. Mexico City

Two locations in the southern part of the city are well worth visiting for Day of the Dead.

In San Andrés Mixquic, which has strong indigenous roots, graves are decorated with Mexican marigolds in a cemetery lit by hundreds and hundreds of candles. Street stalls, household altars and processions attract thousands of capitalinos each year.

In Xochimilco, the canals and chinampas are the background for special night-time Day of the Dead excursions by boat (trajinera).

3. Morelos

Ocotepec, on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, is another excellent place to visit for Day of the Dead activities.

4. Veracruz

Xico, one of Mexico’s Magic Towns, has colorful Day of the Dead celebrations, including a flower petal carpet along the road to the graveyard. Don’t miss sampling the numerous kinds of tamales that are a mainstay of the local cuisine.

5. San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo

In the indigenous Huastec settlements of the mountainous area shared by the states of San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo, the celebrations for Day of the Dead are known as Xantolo. Multi-tiered altars are elaborately decorated as part of the festivities.

6. Chiapas

Several indigenous communities in Chiapas celebrate the Day of the Dead in style. For example, in San Juan Chamula, the festival is known as Kin Anima, and is based on the indigenous tzotzil tradition.

San Juan Chamula

San Juan Chamula

7. Yucatán and Quintana Roo

In the Maya region, Day of the Dead celebrations are known as Hanal Pixan, “feast for the souls.” Families prepare elaborate food for the annual return of their dearly departed. The cemeteries in the Yucatán capital Mérida are well worth seeing, as are the graveyards in many smaller communities. See, for example, this account of the festivities in Pac Chen, Quintana Roo: Hanal Pixan, Maya Day of the Dead in Pac Chen, Quintana Roo

Tourist locations offer their own versions of Day of the Dead celebrations. For example, Xcaret theme park, in the Riviera Maya, is the scene of the Festival of Life and Death (Festival de la Vida y la Muerte) featuring parades, rituals, concerts, theater performances and dancing.

8. Oaxaca

There are rich and varied observances of Day of the Dead in the state of Oaxaca. Visitors to Oaxaca City can witness vigils in several of the city’s cemeteries and night-time processions called comparsas. The celebrations are very different on the Oaxacan coast, as evidenced by this account of Day of the Dead in Santiago Pinotepa Nacional.

9. Guanajuato
The city of San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato holds an annual four-day festival known as “La Calaca” with artistic and cultural events that are “integrated into the vibrant celebration of life and death known as Dia de Muertos”.

In Mexico, the age-old cultural traditions of Day of the Dead are still very much alive!

Note for armchair travelers

Besides the usual travel accounts describing Day of the Dead, there are numerous children’s and adult novels including vivid accounts of typical Day of the Dead activities. There are also various novels entitled Day of the Dead, though not all of them are focused on the Mexican tradition. One of the earliest of the novels entitled Day of the Dead is Bart Spicer’s 1955 spy novel, Day of the Dead, which has several scenes in Chapala, Guadalajara and Mexico City.

Related links:

Oct 122018
 

Ten new “Magic Towns” have been announced, bringing the total number nationwide to 121. The lates additions are:

  • Melchor Múzquiz, Coahuila
  • Nombre de Dios, Durango
  • Comonfort, Guanajuato
  • Zimapán, Hidalgo
  • Tlaquepaque, Jalisco
  • Compostela, Nayarit
  • Amealco de Bonfil, Querétaro
  • Aquismón, San Luis Potosí
  • Bustamante, Nuevo León
  • Guadalupe, Zacatecas

See also:

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Oct 022018
 

Several previous administrations have tried to decentralize Mexico, encouraging businesses to set up in the “periphery” away from the “core” of Mexico City and central Mexico. The incoming administration has announced its intention to move several federal government Secretariats away from Mexico City. The plans are discussed in some detail in this interesting article by Simon Schatzberg:

Sep 142018
 

Happy birthday, Mexico! On 16 September 2018, Mexico celebrates the 208th anniversary of its independence from Spain.

Mexican flag

When was Mexico’s War of Independence?

The long struggle for independence began on 16 September 1810; independence was finally “granted” by Spain in 1821.

Want some map-related geographic trivia associated with the War of Independence?

Events in the War of Independence called for an accurate map of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural lake. The cartographer for this map was José María Narváez, whose major contributions to Mexican cartography in succeeding decades have largely been forgotten.

The first truly national map, compiled in 1857-1858 from a meticulous reconciling of the work of numerous local cartographers, was drawn by Antonio García Cubas. García Cubas did not graduate from university until a few years after completing this map!

Nationalism and the start of Mexico-USA migration, but not in the direction you might think…

Following independence, the rush was on to draw an accurate map of all of Mexico’s territory. Mexico’s boundaries following independence were very different to today. Flows of migrants linking the USA to Mexico at that time were from the USA to Mexico, the reverse of the direction of more recent flows, which have seen millions of Mexicans migrate north looking for work:

Some national symbols are not quite what you might think, either!

The story of the national emblem (used on coins, documents and the flag) of an eagle devouring a serpent, while perched on a prickly-pear cactus, is well known. Or is it?

Why is “El Grito” held on the night of 15 September each year?

In 1910, then president Porfirio Díaz decided that the centenary of Mexican independence should be celebrated in style. One of the reasons why the “traditional” Grito (“shout”) is made on 15 September each year, rather than on the morning of 16 September (when Father Miguel Hidalgo apparently gathered his parishioners in revolt) is because 15 September 1910 happened to be Díaz’s 80th birthday. Why not have one big bash and celebrate both president and country at the same time? Even though the Mexican Revolution broke out later that year (and Díaz was later exiled to Paris), Mexico continues to start its annual independence-day celebrations on the evening of 15 September.

Not to be confused with Cinco de Mayo (5 May)

Many people incorrectly assume that Cinco de Mayo (5 May) is Mexico’s independence day. The Cinco de Mayo has nothing to do with Independence, but everything to do with a famous victory over the French. It commemorates the Battle of Puebla, fought on May 5, 1862. The battle marks Mexico’s only major military success since independence:

Independent country, independent book:

Mexico has come a long way in 200 years, but amazingly, to the best of our knowledge, Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, is the first-ever book in English focused exclusively on the nation’s varied and fascinating geography.

¡Viva Mexico!

Mexican flag

Aug 282018
 

For anyone who continues to doubt the potentially disastrous impacts of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border on wildlife (let alone people), then perhaps these two articles will help you decide which side of the fence you want to be on:

See also:

May 032018
 

The holiday of Cinco de Mayo (5 May) commemorates the Battle of Puebla, fought on May 5, 1862. The battle (against the French) marks Mexico’s only major military success since its independence from Spain in 1821. Today, in a curious example of cultural adaptation, the resulting holiday is actually celebrated more widely in the USA than in Mexico!

Cinco de Mayo: Google image search results

Cinco de Mayo: Google image search results

For an account of the history behind the Cinco de Mayo, and for an explanation of why the holiday is now celebrated more in the USA than in Mexico:

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with a parade in the City of Puebla each year, but, in another strange twist of geography,  the longest-running annual re-enactment takes place in Mexico City:

Want to read more?

MexConnect has several informative articles relating to Cinco de Mayo, including:

Feb 132018
 

A new museum 40 kilometers northwest of the Yucatán state capital – Mérida – is expected to open later this year to explain the nearby Chicxulub Crater, created by an asteroid impact 65 million years ago, and believed to be responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

Dec 242017
 

Some parts of Mexico have been working on Christmas for most of the year… For example, the manufacturing of beautiful handmade Christmas tree decorations is the main industry today in the former gold and silver mining town of Tlalpujahua in the state of Michoacán. The production of Christmas ornaments in Tlapujahua has a great series of photos by Arturo Toraya of Notimex, showing some of the steps involved.

ornaments-2

As the accompanying text explains, “Making baubles for Christmas trees is the main source of jobs in the town, which is now one of the top five producers in the world. Due to their quality, 90 percent of the total production is exported to the U.S. and Canada. There are 200 family workshops in the town with seven-hour shifts, and each worker can make up to 550 baubles per day. Each workshop decorates about 500 per day. Red, blue, green and yellow are the top selling colors in Mexico, while black, brown and grey are more popular in the U.S.”

The village of Tzintzuntzan, on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, also in Michoacán, is another settlement where Christmas seems to be a year-round source of inspiration. The village handicraft market is a cornucopia of straw work in every conceivable color, design and size, which make ideal Christmas decorations or gifts.

Happy Christmas from Geo-Mexico! – ¡Feliz Navidad!

Craft market in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan

Craft market in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan

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