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An Introduction to Day of the Dead in Latin America

Because Day of the Dead—so often associated only with Mexico—actually goes beyond borders.

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Hi, I'm Lauren!

Lauren is a Mexico City–based writer, editor, and translator from Yorkshire with bylines at CNN, BBC Travel, and Al Jazeera. She’s currently working on her first full-length literary translation in between harassing her cat, drinking smuggled Yorkshire Tea, and blogging about Latin American literature at leyendolatam.com.

Of all the world’s many festivals celebrating and honoring death—from Korean Chuseok to Cambodia’s Pchum Ben—Day of the Dead is perhaps the best known in the English-speaking western world. (I mean, it’s been UNESCO recognized since 2008, after all.) But beyond the sugar skulls and papel picado (intricate paper bunting), beyond the parades and the pan de muerto (literally “dead bread”), what is Day of the Dead? How is it celebrated across Latin America? Read on for an introduction to this most famed of festivities.

What is Day of the Dead?

Cempasuchile flowers decorate a cemetery during Day of the Dead.
A Mexican cemetery filled with colorful cempasuchiles for Day of the Dead.Bildquelle: Paullina Sonntag / Shutterstock

Because "Coco" didn't paint the full picture.

Before making clear what it is, let’s make clear what it’s not—Mexican Halloween. In fact, Día de Muertos (sometimes written Día de los Muertos) is not even really Mexican, despite the fact that most typical Day of the Dead festivities and activities are widely associated with the country and its people.

It’s actually a celebration rooted in and practised by Indigenous communities, primarily from the south of what we now call Mexico and other parts of Central America. Even parts of South America celebrate the lives of their dead in a similar way at this time of year.

And although some cultures align death with misery, Day of the Dead is a colorful and joyful celebration of life, one which pays homage to the deceased by foregrounding what they loved while they were living.

When is Day of the Dead?

Participants of the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City.
Mexico City's Day of the Dead parade is often held on Halloween day.Bildquelle: Dina Julayeva / Shutterstock

Here's when to celebrate Día de Muertos.

Day of the Dead should really be Days of the Dead, given that it’s celebrated over two days in early November. November 1 (Día de los Angelitos) is dedicated to deceased children, while November 2 (Día de los Difuntos) is about celebrating the life of deceased adults. Graveside vigils for both days typically begin the night before, which perhaps goes a way to explaining why some people associate the festivities with Halloween.

Plus, some events also take place in the days and weeks leading up to the "official" Día de Muertos dates, including parades, gravestone cleanings, food preparation, and altar construction.

Where is Day of the Dead celebrated?

Performers dance at the Day of the Dead parade in Los Angeles.
As well as Latin America, places such as Los Angeles also mark Day of the Dead.Bildquelle: Usa-Pyon / Shutterstock

It's not just Mexico.

Day of the Dead is widely celebrated across what we know as Mexico, particularly in the south of the country, where there are numerous Indigenous communities. However, you’ll also find Day of the Dead celebrations or similar in Guatemala, Belize, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Bolivia.

Popular spots to respectfully celebrate Day of the Dead as an outsider to the culture include Mexico City, Oaxaca, Mérida and the Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala City, La Paz, Quito, and US cities such as Santa Ana, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, California, as well as parts of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Related: 10 of the Biggest and Best Day of the Dead Celebrations in the US

How is Day of the Dead celebrated?

A scene at the The Guatemalan Kite Festival during Day of the Dead.
The Guatemalan Kite Festival is one of the most impressive Día de Muertos celebrations.Bildquelle: Lucy.Brown / Shutterstock

Approaches to the holiday differ across the region.

Day of the Dead celebrations vary from family to family, community to community, and country to country. However, graveside vigils, music, and food tend to be common themes.

In Mexico, as in other countries, building altars is the centerpiece of the celebration, from personal altars in family homes to large, spectacular offerings in public spaces and even graveside variations. These altars typically include items such as cempasúchil (Mexican marigold) flowers, candles, pan de muerto, and sugar skulls, as well as personal items of the deceased. Parades are also common, including in Mexico City, where the fictional parade in Bond film Spectre (2015) became reality in 2016. Then there are the more skeletal traditions, which see costumed calacas and elaborate painted Catrinas spring up across the country.

In Guatemala, one of the most intriguing Day of the Dead celebrations takes place in the town of Sumpango. There, giant, intricate, and colorful kites are flown above cemeteries on November 1. Meanwhile, Bolivians, Peruvians, and Ecuadorians head to the cemeteries to pay homage to their deceased and clean the gravesites, while Brazilians and Costa Ricans tend to pay their respects in church.

In the Bolivian Andes—including La Paz—Aymara people even take their loved ones’ skulls to the cemetery on November 8 to thank them for looking out for the living over the preceding year. This is not dissimilar to Hanal Pixán rituals in Pamuch, Campeche, where the living unearth the bones of their dead to clean them.

Tips for celebrating Day of the Dead as an outsider

Pan de Muerto adorns an altar for Day of the Dead.
Some Mexican "dead breads" are adorned with doughy bones.Bildquelle: Mille H / Shutterstock

Pay your respects while being respectful.

Although Day of the Dead favors joy over sadness and prioritizes life over death, it’s still an occasion that demands respect from those coming to observe the traditions, especially graveside vigils. If you plan on visiting popular cemeteries such as San Andrés Mixquic in Mexico City or Isla Janitzio in Michoacán, keep quiet when walking among the graves and don’t take close-up photos without the permission of those involved.

Graveyard visits aside, be sure to indulge in the seasonal culinary offerings, such as “dead bread”—pretty much every country and region has its own impressive version—creamy atole (a corn-based hot drink), warming hot chocolates, or colada morada (a purple corn and fruit concoction popular in South America).

Most of all though, enjoy the atmosphere. Day of the Dead—wherever you celebrate—is one of the most evocative times of the year.

Editor's note: Travel to Michoacán is not recommended due to serious safety risks in this area. Please follow your government's guidance and travel advisories.

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