For my first official press trip in 18 months, I am heading down to México as a guest of the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun to celebrate Día de los Muertos and I am excited. Día de los Muertos is celebrated Nov 1 (All Saints’ Day) to Nov 2 (All Souls’ Day). It’s one of the largest, well known holidays México celebrates. Rather than being a mournful occasion, it’s about celebrating the lives of those who have passed with joyous memory so the souls are able to return to earth to participate in the two days of celebration. It has roots in Indigenous culture and Catholicism.
I’m sure you have seen the Catarina’s and the colorful Calaveras (Sugar Skulls) before. Depending on where you are in the country, each state has different traditions and I’ll be heading to the Yucatán Peninsula to join in the festivities. In case México is not on your travel list just yet, here are three popular components of Día de los Muertos deconstructed.
As a group, we will be heading to the Isla Mujeres by ferry to see what the island has to offer, including visiting the Sea-view Cemetery, bordering the Caribbean Ocean. While cemeteries are decorated with flowers and candles, large altares de Muertos or ofrendas are often constructed to honour loved ones and lead them home. There are several components to building an altar – each with their own symbolism. First, there are the levels. There can be two, three or seven levels with the most common being seven, as this number is the level that the soul must travel before reaching heaven (or hell). A Saint or Virgin tops the altar with photos of the deceased and Calaveras interspersed. The Calaveras are eaten by children after the celebration is over.
The four elements of nature are depicted on the altar. Air, the union between life and death is depicted through orange and purple tissue paper. Water is put on the altar to quench the thirst of the departed for the journey. Candles are lit as fire to depict the love we have for the deceased and to guide them home. Earth is symbolized by seeds and can be made into crosses along with flowers and tissue paper. Cups of salt symbolize purity and serve as a deterrent from earthly temptations. Incense and flowers are used to purify the souls and help guide them into the mortal world. Colours commonly used for the flowers included: Yellow representing light; white representing the sky; and purple, the traditional color of mourning in México. A banquet of the deceased favorite foods including the Pan de Muertos, a sweet bread represents the generosity of the host (Altars, 2021, Alvadaro, 2018 & Auman, 2017).
Hanal Pixán (Food for the Souls)
As part of this years’ festivities, we will be treated to a banquet meal, created by Executive Chef, Sergio Zárate. He will instruct us how to prepare a traditional Mukbil Pollo. This giant tamale is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a Pib (oven buried in the ground), but this version is modified to cook in an oven.
2 kg Corn Dough
100 gm Corn Flour
200 gm Lard
1 Whole Chicken
50 gm Achiote Paste
Salt (to taste)
2 Red tomatoes
1 Large Onion
1 Sprig of Epazote
4 Bay Leaves
Whole Black Peppercorn
4 Garlic Cloves
Banana Leaves (previously washed and rinsed)
Start cooking the chicken in cold water, add bay leaves, whole black peppercorn, half an onion, 2 cloves of garlic and a pinch of salt. Once everything is cooked, reserve the meat and chicken and separate the broth.
Pour the broth in a skillet (you will need about four cups. Dissolve the achiote in the broth and add a bit of salt, add some corn flour to the broth to make a thick sauce; this sauce will be the Mayan Kol where the chicken will finish cooking. Mix the corn dough with the lard, add salt to the achiote paste to give the dough that special color.
To make the corn dough base, cover the bottom of a roasting pan with the banana leaves, put masa (dough) on the leaves, giving it the shape of the pan. Save some masa for the end, in order to form the cover of the dish.
Pull the chicken meat apart and sauté with the remaining onion, garlic, julienned tomatoes and Epazote leaves.
Finally, put the lid of masa (dough) on top, wrap the whole with the banana leaves. Preheat the oven at 300 ˚F and bake for about an hour and a half.
Catrina and Catrin
Besides the Calaveras, La Calavera Catrina or the Elegant Skull, is one of the most iconic symbols of Día de los Muertos. They are the elegantly dressed skeleton women who can be accompanied with skeleton men, known as Catrins. La Calavera Catrina was first depicted by artist Jose Posada in the early 1900’s, around the middle of the Méxican revolution. A statement on how death is inevitable no matter your social standing or class. Diego Rivera incorporated a Catrina in his mid 1940’s mural, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central or Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central. Catrina stands tall beside his wife, Frida Kahlo.
As we feast on our banquet prepared by Executive Chef Sergio Zárate, my friend Leanne has made me a flower crown to wear. The flor de muerto (flower of death) used in the Catrina crown is made from the cempasúchil or the marigolds. This, in season flower is fragrant and it’s beautiful, vibrant color is said to lead the souls to the altar (Dillon, 2021).
I’m excited to be in México for this honoured holiday full of unique traditions and customs. I hope you take the spirit of Día de los Muertos and learn to celebrate the beauty of both life and death every day.
Altars, Masks and Parades for the Day of the Dead in Mexico. (2021, Sept 29). Imagine Mexico.com.https://imagine-mexico.com/day-of-the-dead-in-mexico/
Alvadaro, Y. (2018, Oct 23). Life, death celebration keeps tradition alive. ETCETERA. https://eastfieldnews.com/11275/life-arts/life-death-celebration-keeps-tradition-alive/
Auman, K. (2017, Nov 2). The Meaning and Symbolism of Día de los Muertos Altars. Poudre River Public Library District Library Blog. https://blog.poudrelibraries.org/2017/11/symbolism-dia-de-los-muertos-altars/
Dillon, K. (2021, July 8). The Role Marigold Flowers Play in Dia de los Muetros (Day of the Dead). La Jolla Mom. https://lajollamom.com/the-role-marigolds-play-in-dia-de-los-muertos/