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Mexico Knows How To Celebrate And Día De Muertos Celebrations Are Extra Special, Here’s Where You Can Join In On The Celebration

Here’s one thing we know: Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not a Mexican version of Halloween. Though related, the two annual events differ greatly in traditions and tone. Whereas Halloween is a dark night of terror and mischief, Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. In towns and cities throughout Mexico, revelers don makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones.

The rituals are rife with symbolic meaning. The more you understand about this feast for the senses, the more you will appreciate it. And with celebrations taking place across not just Mexico, but also major cities throughout the US, here’s everything you should know about the major holiday.

But first, what exactly is Día de Muertos?

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Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth.

Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.

It’s such an important part of the Mexican identity, that UNESCO has recognized it.

Thanks to efforts by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, the term “cultural heritage” is not limited to monuments and collections of objects. It also includes living expressions of culture—traditions—passed down from generation to generation. In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Día de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Today Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos, but at its core, the holiday is a reaffirmation of indigenous life.

One of the most popular places to celebrate Dia de Muertos is in the Mexican city of Oaxaca.

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In Oaxaca, you’ll find spectacular markets selling festive items from which locals construct their Day of the Dead altars—look for sugar skulls and specialty food items like black mole. Oaxaca schools have contests for homemade altars, and the city goes all out with elaborate creations like sand tapestries. You’ll also find spontaneous carnival-like processions in surrounding villages and neighborhoods, like Etla.

Ever since the movie Coco, the villages of Michoacán have been ground zero for tourists wanting to experience Dia de Muertos.

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One of the most moving Day of the Dead celebrations takes place each year in Pátzcuaro, a municipality in the state of Michoacán about 225 miles west of Mexico City. Indigenous people from the countryside converge on the shores of Pátzcuaro Lake, where they pile into canoes, a single candle burning in each bow, and paddle over to a tiny island called Janitzio for an all-night vigil in an indigenous cemetery.

The crew of Disney’s Coco also said that the lakeside village served as inspiration for the film, and after visiting I can totally see why.

If you’re in Mexico City, you need to visit the network of canals in the south of the city called Xochimilco.

Take a nighttime ride through the canals of Xochimilco capping with a show narrating the legend of la llorona (The Weeping Woman). This year the spectacle will take place between October 5 and November 18 and will be celebrating its twenty-five years on stage. Also, this event is the only of its kind that has won multiple awards for its efforts in preserving a piece of Mexican history, recognized in 2008 by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Also near Mexico City, is the pueblito of Mixquic which has an incredible and authentic celebration that many say is among the country’s best.

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Mixquic, located in the Tlahuac Delegation of Mexico City (southeast of the Mexico City center) has been swallowed up by the megalopolis’s urban sprawl, but retains the ambiance of a rural village with strong indigenous roots. Street stalls are set up in the days before the celebrations. A procession through town with a cardboard coffin leads the way to the cemetery where a candle-light vigil will take place.

Or you can hang out in the city and watch the massive parade.

This year marks the third edition of the Día de Muertos parade — a celebration full of iconic folklore associated with Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

As every year, you can awe over decorated floats, José Guadalupe Posada’s classic catrinas turned into giant marionettes, and Day of the Dead-themed balloons. Contrary to popular knowledge, this parade was not a norm in Mexico City until the release of the 2015 James Bond film, Spectre; in the film, Bond casually weaves through the parade before changing into a suit and pursuing his targets. The scene made an international impact, and Mexico City saw an opportunity to boost tourism while finding a new, fun way to celebrate their beloved holiday.

Meanwhile, in the US, Los Angeles is home to one of the largest celebrations in the world.

You’ll find a traditional Day of the Dead celebration in Los Angeles, on vibrant Olvera Street, home of one of the city’s largest Mexican marketplaces. This area upholds many festive Mexican traditions, commemorating the holiday with face painting, theatrical performances, altar displays, nightly candlelit processions, and more.

While just a few miles away, there is a two-day celebration that takes place at the Hollywood Forever Cemtetary that attracts more than a quarter million people. At L.A.’s most photogenic Day of the Dead celebration, the cemetery grounds are covered with art exhibitions, dance rituals, musical performances, children’s arts and crafts projects and food vendors (and crowds) aplenty. You’ll see altars to the dead created by community artists, and can either watch or participate in the calaca (skeleton) costume contest. This year’s theme honors sacred migrations and the monarch butterfly.

Chicago is another US city that knows how to celebrate the beauty of Dia de Muertos.

Credit: National Museum of Mexican Art

Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art celebrates the Day of the Dead with a special presentation, called Día de los Muertos Xicágo. Families are invited to upload a photo of a loved one they want to remember, which is then projected onto the museum’s exterior during the one-day celebration. Other highlights include a community altar display, traditional foods, face painting, and live performances.

And in Arizona, the city of Tucson has one of the country’s most powerful displays of celebration.

Credit: Rebecca Noble

Tucson‘s All Souls Procession and All Souls Weekend are held just after the Day of the Dead. With more than 150,000 participants walking in the two-mile-long procession, it’s one of the most powerful Día de los Muertos celebrations in North America. Events include a communal urn burning, cultural performances, and art installations.

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