Image via Eneas de Troya

“The Mexican…is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it…”
—Octavio Paz

MARIGOLDS, SUGAR SKULLS, and tequila-adorned altars — Paz was right. No holiday celebrates death like Día de los Muertos.

Its Aztec roots reach back millennia. Surviving colonial absorption into Catholicism’s All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, the holiday retains the Aztec idea of death as a continuation of life in a parallel form; souls of the departed have an easier time visiting this world on Día de los Muertos, aided by the ofrendas (altars of offerings) the living set out.

Here’s a roundup of some of the best places to catch a celebration, both traditional and modern:

1. Pátzcuaro, Mexico

The sleepy streets of Pátzcuaro in central Mexico explode during Día de los Muertos week with truck-fulls of marigolds, street stalls selling pan de muerto (sweet bread), and one killer craft market. Look out for signature Catrinas, painstakingly ornate handmade calaca (skeleton) figures.

The local Purépecha people’s observance retains a more spiritual, traditional aspect than anywhere else — a soulfulness that counterbalances the slew of tourists.

Locally referred to as Noche de los Muertos, all-night graveside vigils are held in the villages surrounding Pátzcuaro on November 1.

In Tzintzuntzan, the next pueblo over, camping families cuddle up and tell stories about deceased loved ones at the foot of candlelit ofrendas. The local cemetery is open to the public, admission is free, and photographs are allowed (remember to be respectful).

Separate observances are held for angelitos — the souls of children. The most well-known occurs on the tiny island of Isla Janitzio in the middle of Lake Pátzcuaro. Mothers of angelitos hold a special procession to the children’s cemetery, while fishermen surround the island in candlelit boats.

As this is a popular observance, the island is uncomfortably full of tourists. Tip: Go after 3am.

2. Mexico City/Mixquic

Mexico D.F. sprouts marigolds and spontaneous streetside ofrendas during Día de los Muertos week. An altar contest is held in the Zócalo (main square) and big-time museums such as Casa Azul, Anahuacalli, and Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño get in the spirit with larger-than-life papier-mâché calaca scenes.

Major vigils are held at the city’s largest cemeteries, Panteón Civil de Dolores and Bosque de Chapultepec.

Within the urban areas of Mexico City, the holiday is celebrated as a folk tradition, rather than a spiritual or religious affair.

This is not the case in the once-small-town of Mixquic, which has been geographically — but not culturally — swallowed by the southeasterly sprawl of the D.F.

Here, a cardboard coffin leads a candlelit procession through the streets to the town’s graveyards, where families gather to celebrate. Candles remain lit to guide spirits home and midnight bells toll to call them back.

3. San Francisco Bay Area

Día de los Muertos observances in the Bay Area blend the familial focus of its large Latino population with the creativity of its arts community. San Francisco’s Mission District is ground zero for the November 2nd procession and altar exhibit, a 30-plus-year tradition.

The free event draws an impressive cross-section of the city’s population and some heavily politicized, artistic works.

Across the Bay, Oakland’s Fruitvale district holds a daytime street fair on the Sunday preceding the holiday. Even with throngs of people and scores of vendors, the vibe is local, with traditional altars and dance performances, radio stations’ speakers throbbing hip-hop, local merchant booths, and some bangin’ Cali-Mex food stands.

Museums around the Bay embrace Día de los Muertos. Altars, events, and exhibits are held at the de Young and Oakland Museums and community galleries like SomArts, Galería de la Raza, and The Crucible.

4. Los Angeles

Nothing may capture LA’s dichotomy of culture quite like the city’s most well-known Day of the Dead celebrations.

On the one side is the Self Help Graphics & Art’s festivities in the Evergreen Cemetery in East LA. This Chicano-centered art collective has been putting on the free November 2nd event since 1972, taking a community-based approach — local artists, residents, youth, and even nuns come together.

Of similar authenticity is the Olvera Street Merchants’ nine nightly processions down their historic street in the evenings preceding the holiday, where you can sip free champurrado (a thick Mexican hot chocolate) and munch pan de muerto.

On the other side of the spectrum, across town, is the popular Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s admission-based celebration.

Faint whiffs of tradition mix with hip altars honoring celebrities, overpriced craft vendors, and a heavy taste of commercialization.

The altar contest draws some wryly imaginative creations, though, and the event serves as a fascinating example of the Hollywood-ification of culture.

5. Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala

While the exact connection between Mexico’s Aztec-based Day of the Dead and Guatemala’s Mayan-based version are not totally clear, the parallels are undeniable. Both pre-Columbian holidays were co-opted into the Catholic All Saints’ Day, and both retain a celebratory approach towards death.

Guatemalans take to the graveyards, decorating gravestones in similarly elaborate altars adorned with marigolds.

What sets celebrations in Guatemala apart are the barriletes gigantes — extravagant and enormous kites central to the festivities.

These hand-constructed kites guide the departed souls back to life on November 1. As a link between life and death, they’re covered with special messages and designs to the deceased, written by the living.

Also unique to Guatemala is fiambre, a cheesy cold-meat-salad smorgasbord placed in altars to lure the dead back.

Guatemala’s best Día de los Muertos celebrations are held in the town of Santiago Sacatepéquez, outside of Antigua. Plenty of tourists pile in but, as in Pátzcuaro, celebrations are steeped in tradition, not tourism.

This article was originally posted on October 29, 2009.

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