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Celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico


By Glenda Winders

While people in the United States celebrate Halloween by dressing up as zombies, visiting haunted houses, and making displays of ghosts and giant spiders on their lawns, our neighbors in Mexico are celebrating a similar holiday but in a whole different way. Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — welcomes departed spirits back to the party and celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed away.

"It's a celebratory holiday, a big party," said Iraseima Belmont, who was showing me around Xel-Ha park in Mexico's Riviera Maya. "It's not scary. We think all of the dead are with us in the air, in light, in flowers."

Before the Spanish conquerors came to Mexico the holiday was celebrated in the summertime, but once Catholicism became the official religion, the three-day observation was moved to Oct. 31-Nov. 2 to coincide with All Saints Day. Today each of Mexico's states has its own holiday traditions, but some elements are central to them all. The best place to learn about them, I found out, was at Xel-Ha and its nearby sister park, Xcaret.

These Yucatan playgrounds are archaeological eco-parks created by architect Miguel Quintana Pali, who once remarked that God had made the parks and he had just put down the paths so that people could enjoy them. They celebrate Mexico's rich cultural and geological heritage year-round, but in late October part of Xcaret puts on its finest to welcome visitors — both living and dead.

One of the permanent exhibits is a faux cemetery called "Bridge to Paradise." Its seven levels represent the days of the week, the 365 graves within it symbolize the days of the year and the four ceiba trees at the top of the cemetery signify the four directions. No real people are buried here, but artists have re-created colorful gravesites from around the country.

All of the graves reflect the personality of the person ostensibly buried there. The more reverent ones are built to resemble tiny churches or have statues of the Virgin Mary on them, but some are comical: One I saw was shaped to look like a car with a tire as the headstone. Another proclaimed the occupant's love of whisky and beer.

At this time of year they are decorated — as real graves would be — with cockscomb plants to represent the blood of Jesus, marigolds whose strong scent and bright colors are said attract the dead, and candles to light their way. Nearby, a wall covered with candleholders encourages participants to light candles by way of inviting their own departed loved ones to join them.

During this season the Museum of Mexican Folk Art on the grounds is converted to a Children's Pavilion, where kids — and anyone else — can come to do crafts, make cookies, play games and learn about the legends surrounding this festival. Also available throughout the park are stations where revelers can have their faces painted as skulls. Here skeletons are not seen as scary but instead have the positive connotation of death's being a step toward a better life. Faces at Xcaret are typically half living and half skull in keeping with the park's calling its celebration "Festival of the Traditions of Life and Death."

Most years the park spotlights one of Mexico's 31 states by bringing in cooks, musicians and dancers to demonstrate how Day of the Dead is celebrated in their part of the country.

During my visit cocineras from Michoacan — everyday cooks, not chefs — set up camp outside to pound out and cook tortillas. Some of them fill cornhusks with masa (cornmeal flour), chicken and vegetables to make nacatamales, special tamales made just this time of year to honor those who have died in the past 12 months. If no one has died, there are no nacatamales that year.

One group of women was serving up bee larva, which they had harvested in the belief that departed souls enter the egg in order to reunite with their loved ones when they are eaten. A Yucatan seasonal favorite is muchbipollo, banana leaves filled with masa and meat. While the women make the dish, men dig the holes in which it will be cooked.

Other foods popular at this time of year are candies and cookies made to look like skulls and a sweet bread called pan de los muertos — bread of the dead. The beverage of the day is atole, a hot drink made of flour, water and berries.

One tradition kept all over the country is that of building an altar to departed family and friends, and I saw many of these during my visit to the parks, but my closest encounter came after I'd left that area and gone farther north to join friends Linda Vognar and Bob Noyce in Guanajuato. Vognar's brother had recently passed away, and when I arrived at the house we had rented together the first thing I saw was the altar she had built to honor him.

"Each altar we passed in the city symbolized love and memory as well as loss, life as well as death," Vognar said. "Keeping this in mind, creating an altar in our Mexican living room allowed me to tangibly mourn and honor the recent loss of my brother in a very healing manner."

She explained that an altar typically contains a picture of the person along with the four elements, which she represented with candles and incense (fire), cut paper decorations (air), a bouquet of flowers (water), and nuts, seeds and salt (earth). A chicken with eggs depicts the circle of life.

Beyond these basics some people add religious symbols, sports equipment, art objects, favorite foods and even toiletries for freshening up once the spirits arrive back on earth. Some altars we saw around town had multiple levels, with a ruglike part on the floor called a tapeta that was made up of flower petals, sawdust or sand.

Another figure that turned up everywhere we went was La Calavera Catrina, the skeleton of a well-dressed upper-class female. She was popularized by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada during the early 19th century as a protest against the Mexican elite during the reign of Porfirio Diaz, but she matches up well with the Aztec legend of the Lady of the Dead, and she is also said to represent the reality that death comes to everyone — rich or poor.


Experiencing the Day of the Dead at Xcaret and Xel-Ha in Riviera Maya, Mexico, is an unforgettable way to commemorate the holiday. For this year's 10th-anniversary celebration the park is bringing in musical groups from Colombia, where the holiday is also celebrated:

I stayed at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, an all-inclusive resort that offered Day of the Dead activities for children and fashioned an elaborate altar for Frida Kahlo in their elegant Frida restaurant:

Glenda Winders is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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