“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die,” wrote the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell, a sentiment echoed in one of México’s most notable public holidays, Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead).
Officially celebrated on November 2 in México and much of the Latin American world, Day of the Dead is actually observed over several days, coinciding with the Catholic festival of Allhallowtide: All Hallows’ Eve (Oct. 31, the day celebrated as Halloween in the U.S.), All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1, known as Día de los Inocentes or Día de los Angelitos in México, and the day when the souls of children return to visit), and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2, Día de los Muertos, when the souls of adults return).
This was not always so. The Aztecs held a similar festival each August, dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld. But like many Pre-Colombian religious observances, it became syncretized during the colonial period.
In modern times, Mexicans will often visit the gravesites of deceased relatives during this period, or make ofrendas, “offerings” on small altars in their homes or in public places to honor the departed. The altars are often adorned with food or drinks favored by the lost loved one, as well as things like candles, photos, calaveras de azúcar (candies in the shape of skulls), pan de muerto (special Day of the Dead bread ) and cempasúchil flowers (Aztec marigolds). Catrina figures, female skeletons dressed in elaborately colorful costumes, are also a common sight during Day of the Dead celebrations, as well as being big sellers in many souvenir stores.
Although Day of the Dead remembrances date to México’s Pre-Hispanic past, La Catrina is a more recent phenomenon. Created by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, whose figure of an elegantly clad female skeleton was meant to satirize Mexicans with pretensions to European gentility, Catrina first appeared between 1910 and 1913. Diego Rivera’s famous 1948 mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central helped popularize the Catrina figure, and in the intervening years she has become a symbolic, iconographic representation of Día de los Muertos, and indeed death itself.
Los Cabos visitors interested in viewing traditional altars will want to go to San José del Cabo’s historic Distrito del Arte, which kicks off its seasonal Art Walk season each year with an Art and Altars Exhibition in honor of Day of the Dead. Art Walk itself resumes on Oct. 29 – on Thursdays from 5 to 9 p.m., locals and visitors are invited to sip wine, stroll the neighborhood’s charming cobblestone streets, and peruse paintings and other fine art at local galleries – and ofrendas will be displayed, along with work from featured artists, at participating galleries through Nov. 2. At Galería de Ida Victoria for example (whose altar from last year is pictured above right), an ofrenda will share space with new work from award-winning U.S. realist painter Misty Martin.
Flora Farm, best known as the home of benchmark farm-to-table restaurant Flora’s Field Kitchen, will also be showcasing altars from local artists…15 of them, to be exact. Visitors can vote on their favorites – an altar unveiling will take place on Friday, Oct. 30 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. – with prize money for the “most original” and “most traditional” altars donated to the respective artist’s charity of choice.
Calavera connoisseurs, meanwhile, will want to make reservations at Mi Casa in Cabo San Lucas, which in addition to showcasing authentic regional cuisine from around Mexico, also has one of the finest local collections of Catrina figurines. And Pancho’s, another specialist in traditional cuisine, is offering four days of food and wine specials to coincide with Day of the Dead festivities, including discounts on samplers from what is thought to be the world’s largest tequila collection, with over 560 labels represented.
Such spots are highly recommended as an introduction to public, material manifestations of El Día de los Muertos in Los Cabos. But one need not shop for Catrinas or sugary skulls to participate in the spirit of the holiday. All you have to do is think of those people in your life who have passed, and remember how much they meant to you. And, if you have a photograph of them handy, you can set it on a nearby table, perhaps with a few cempasúchil flowers, and maybe even some carnitas and Coca-Cola to refresh them. For they are with us still.