The sun-bleached headstones and powder-blue mausoleums of the 5 de Diciembre cemetery glow in the rising moonlight as families gather around the gravesites of their departed loved ones in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Candles flicker in the background as crowds of people move between the grave markers, filling the scene with laughter amid the sound of musicians strumming Spanish guitars. Today is Nov. 2, and this is the annual celebration known as Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead.
Día de los Muertos has been celebrated in Mexico since as early as the 1500s, but its roots began with the Aztecs roughly 3,000 years ago. Previously, it was held in August and considered a harvest festival, but Catholic influences moved it to November to overlap with All Saints’ Days and All Souls’ Day.
This mixture of Catholic, Spanish and Aztec influences has changed the celebration over the centuries, with regions of Mexico embracing different traditions. But, the idea of celebrating in the face of death, has remained. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, it’s believed that spirits return from the afterlife to reconvene with their loved ones. Nov. 1 honours the souls of children, called angelitos (little angels), who have passed away, while Nov. 2 culminates with a celebration for the souls of adults, and the La Caravana de la Muerte parade.
“It’s a way to remember loved ones,” says Kevin Simpson, one of the owners of Puerto Vallarta’s Peyote People art gallery. “Once a year, let’s remember what they did for the family. Day of the Dead is about the full circle of life, it’s not a sombre thing.”
During the days leading up to the festival, altars are built all across the city. Some are tucked away in homes while others are displayed along the downtown Malecón, allowing passers-by to consider the ofrendas (the offerings). The altars typically include a photo of the departed as well as seven steps filled with symbols and gifts left for the loved one as a way to welcome him or her home.
Altars offer a peek into a stranger’s life. One might include a guitar and some coffee, while another displays a bottle of mescal and cigars. Altars for children will offer candy and toys. Most altars hold a few staples, however, including marigolds, candles, sugar skulls and pan de muerto, a sweet bread—often baked into the shape of bones and skulls—that is only made during this time of the year.
Official Día de los Muertos celebrations begin as November nears. The streets start to overflow with decorations, windows are filled with marigolds, and strings of vibrant papel picado (traditional Mexican cut paper) are strung above the streets, squares and buildings, where they sway in the fall wind.
Locals and visitors fill the streets and graveyards for the festivities, with many painting their faces white, with black circles around their eyes and stitches over their lips, to look like living skeletons.
A dance show on Nov. 1 sees children from the Xiutla Folkloric Ballet take over Puerto Vallarta’s Lázaro Cárdenas Park. Young girls dressed as La Catrina, the Day of the Dead’s grand dame, dance with the rigid grace of the skeletons they depict. The boys play the role of her male counterpart, El Catrin. Soft, blue lights and low-lying smoke illuminate the skeletal dancers as they move across the stage.
In the plaza behind the dancers, vendors, also sporting black-and-white face paint, sell Day of the Dead-inspired treats and nearby restaurants are decorated with massive papier-mâché La Catrinas. Music rings through the streets as the city comes to life and its people honour the dead.
“It is a celebration of the cycle of life,” explains Simpson. “We are taught that your soul lasts forever, so, when one dies, the flesh is gone and all we are left with is the bones—one’s soul resides in the bones, which are celebrated after death.”
As twilight falls over the 5 de Diciembre cemetery, the crowds begin to leave and head towards the Malecón for the Día de los Muertos finale, leaving behind a number of families perched around the graves of their loved ones sharing in a moonlit picnic.
When the crowds arrives at the the Malecón, the atmosphere is electric. Lit only by candlelight, an energy buzzes through every corner of downtown. Mariachi bands play on the street corners, while men and women dressed as skeletons dance under the moonlight.
Death may be inevitable, but one thing is for certain during Día de los Muertos: death can be celebrated, not feared, because the souls and the memories live on through generations.