Our team had the chance to sit down with Local Guide Victor, to talk about the Day of the Dead. You may have seen skulls or elaborate skull face paint designs around Halloween; did you know these skulls are called “Calaveras?”
Many stores in the US these days pair Halloween props with Day of the Dead themed decorations. Chances are you’ve run into the Day of the Dead at some point, but what is this holiday all about? It’s definitely not just another name for Halloween, so clear up any misconceptions and read up on the origins of Day of the Dead and how it’s celebrated!
There is no specific origin for Day of the Dead. It’s the residual beliefs of all the natives before the Europeans came because they all used to believe in various deities; one of them was the god of death. Even though the Europeans successful converted everyone after their arrival, some of those beliefs survived and became the Day of the Dead.
It wasn’t about death; it was about bringing offerings to the God or Goddess of Death so that she/he would give you a plentiful life. And at the end of your life, that figure would take you to another world, not heaven nor hell, just the afterlife.
Victor has celebrated the Day of the Dead since he was young. His family is from Taxco, a town three hours from Mexico City where he spent most of his childhood. They went to the cemetery as a family, first cleaning, then decorating the tombs as well as bringing food and beverages. You could spend the day and maybe even the whole night at the cemetery.
There are small variations of the Day of the Dead in some Latin American countries, but Mexico is the central focus. In the US, because of the large volume of Mexican immigrants, you can get in touch with it easily. To celebrate, either go with family or by yourself to the cemetery. If you don’t have the means to travel to the cemetery where your loved ones are buried because you’ve moved and it’s far away, you can build an altar at home. Offer them food and beverages, everything they liked, and light candles to show them the way.
According to the tradition, Cempazuchitl, a yellow flower that only blooms during this season and has a really strong scent, guides the soul from the other world to your house to spend the day with you. All around Mexico, you’ll see decorations, specifically “calaveras” or skulls, doing everyday activities. And if someone gifts you with a candy skull, don’t freak out, they are just reminding you that you are mortal, so enjoy life while it lasts.
It’s mostly the same. In some places like Janitzio in Michoacán, the whole town leaves in one big procession to the cemetery. In most of Mexico, if you go the big cemeteries, families adorn all of the tombs with beautiful flowers. If you go there, you are well received; they’ll offer you both food and company.
The Day of the Dead is is a private family celebration. That being said, you can visit a famous tomb and bring flowers or a candle. If you befriend someone in Mexico, then that person may invite you to take part in the Day of the Dead celebrations with them. If you don’t know anyone, go to a big cemetery. At first, people won’t pay attention to you, but if you are respectful and friendly, they may invite you to join them, offer you food, or share stories about their loved ones.
People think that it’s about death, that it is very gloomy, and that everyone is sad. It is actually a celebration of life and how beautiful it is. It’s a chance to re-live all of the departed lives. It’s filled with color, scents, and flavors. It’s really about life and celebrating how spectacular it is!
Many people believe that it’s a big party, but it’s not. It’s something private and personal that you do with your family. But it’s not completely closed off. If you know a Mexican, they might open their heart to you and ask you to join. Common misconceptions often come from false representations. For instance, the movie Spectre (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2015) starts with a huge Day of the Dead Parade. In reality, this parade never happened; it’s entirely made up, a sort of movie magic.
As far as I’m concerned, yes, to various degrees, but it’s private, and everyone does their version of it. Mexico City houses a large population who come from the rest of the country, so going to the cemetery is not as easy. Most people build an ofrenda, or altar, at home. They usually build them in public squares and places too.
Take a platform, a table, a stool, and try to build at least two levels on it. Dress it up with paper mache. Then, on top put the pictures of everyone: pets, famous person, and loved ones. On the second level, distribute the offerings. Souls of people who have passed away are thirsty, so add a glass of water. Pan de Muerto, a special bread that has little bones figurines and is covered in sugar is a must. Light some candles, and adorn the Altar with Cempazuchitl flowers.
Some people even write little poems, which we call “calaveritas”, funny stories about the person that died. Most of the stories are about a person losing a contest to Death or the other way around. Besides the food that you are going to offer, people also add beverages, tequila, tobacco or whatever the deceased person liked most.
At the beginning, the Church tried to banish the tradition. They teach that you should fear death and to them, celebrating Day of the Dead was going against that. Thankfully, they lost the battle. Now, more conservative or upper-class families don’t follow it as much, but the celebration is kept everywhere else.
How did you decide to become a tour guide?
I was fed up with what I was doing 4 years ago. I used to work in the film industry, but I quit and started to travel through México. Then, money started to run out. My sister, who is also a tour guide, invited me to take the exam to become a tour guide. So I joined her and here I am!
How do you distinguish yourself from other tour guides?
Several have told me that I’m a very authentic person. I enjoy the look of discovery on other people’s faces and that’s what I try to accomplish. I may not be the most exuberant or the most knowledgeable but I try my best to deliver an authentic experience.
What’s your favorite part of being a tour guide?
When I’m alone I love finding new places. Some people have a misconception of México as a country, and to be able to change their point of view because of what you showed them is very rewarding.
What is the hardest part of being a tour guide?
The hardest part is constantly learning. México is big; there is a never ending supply of knowledge that you need to tap into. Plus, there are frequently new theories about the ancient civilizations. To connect with travelers and give a better experience, I have to not only stay in tune with my own country’s culture but also with other countries’ cultures!
What are you most proud of about México?
The people! They are very generous, kind, very happy, and if you try to make friends, it’s really easy.
What is one thing you want people to know before leaving México?
The door will always be open.
What should a traveler know before they come to México?
It’s not the stereotypical guy with a sarape (poncho) with a donkey drinking Tequila. They will be amazed by our culture and the variety of ethnicities. We are far more advanced than we are often perceived!
Favorite country in Latin America, other than México?
Cuba: it’s an eye-opener to a different way of living.
Favorite Mexican tradition?
Day of the Dead! I am one of the people who write the calaveritas. During that season it’s always a race against time to deliver. I end up scratching my head to write those.
Favorite place in México?
Oaxaca State and City
Mexico in one word?
Favorite part of your tour?
My favorite part is the end of the day when they thank me for helping them learn more about México.
A traveler has 24 hours in México what should they do?
Come to México City, it will leave you wanting more!