The quiet city of La Paz, Mexico erupts in celebrations full of dance, art, and skulls over two nights each year. The Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) Festival actually hums to life months before with preparations to outdo what was done last year, to commemorate better, to express the beautiful death as Mexican culture experiences it.

Dia de muertos: festival of the dead

While individual families wash and attend to loved ones' grave sites on November 1st, the festival is a joyous community event. In the Cultural Center Plaza, families and groups gather to create altars honoring the departed or historical figures while competing for prizes. Their altars may include mementos from the departed's life, favorite foods, clothing, and always a picture. Colorful flowers, especially marigolds, and candles are arranged for artistic effect. Folkloric ballet dance troupes practice and prepare elaborate costumes, the better to reach the audience from the wide and deep Teatro de la Ciudad plaza stage. Musicians, singers, and local celebrities are enlisted to energize the crowd and there are comedians too. Some years, they portray beloved characters and misfits to invoke peals of laughter from young and old.

Each night, November 1st and 2nd, has its own lineup. But before all eyes turn to the stage, the plaza swarms with visitors ogling the altars, marveling at the art show and larger installations. Select food vendors offer Dia de Muertos bread and sweets, perhaps tamales and atole, but this is not a foodie event, so it's better to have dinner before attending. Make up artists set up near the stage to decorate participants.

Dia de Muertos. Photo: Elaine J Masters.

As the sun casts longs deepening shadows, the marvels of the night emerge -- the Calaveras and Catarinas. These costumed and solemn performers have registered for the major prizes. Creativity takes over as the historical characters are interpreted by young and old, men and women, even horses are costumed! Each participant slowly strides through the crowd dressed in elaborate, flowing, feathered, and beaded dress, their features mottled in cadaverous beauty. There are parasols, hoop skirts, and Mayan touches. Men look ready to step into the bullring wearing decorated boleros and beaded matador pants but their faces are painted in skeletal details. There are no smiles only deep looks and regal postures even from the youngest participants. They've been coached to remain calm no matter how many photographers and loving observers swarm to take selfies. Who knows? Those pictures may feature the grand prize winners.

The night progresses with announcements and performances until the Calaveras and Catarinas are called to the stage one by one in a formal presentation to the crowd. Wearing numbers, they emerge from the shadows to cross and flirt, turn and strut. A woman dressed in simple country fabrics carries a human heart sculpture and thrusts it towards the crowd as they murmur and applaud. The dismounted horse riders sashay and nod regally towards their subjects. Stilt walking in boots, or wearing huge heels, women or men dressed as such strive to command the broad stage imperiously.

This parade and the voting takes place over two nights with the winners announced on November 2nd. Crowds start gathering around 6 pm and all can attend for free.

Shrine to the dead with skeleton sculpture and candles, dia de muertos, la paz mexico
Photo: Elaine J Masters.

Why November?

In Mexican culture, it's believed that the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest at this time. It may be a legacy of Spanish Catholics who dutifully observed All Souls Day on November 1st. Certainly, it has nothing to do with the North American tradition of Halloween, except perhaps for dressing up. During these days families believe that ghosts are near. If you find it chilling, watch the movie Coco where Disney portrayed the yearning and loving traditions with bright colors and music.

Who are the Catarinas and Calaveras?

La Flaca, the embodiment of death, is a woman according to the historical culture of Mexico. She goes by many names but most know her as La Catarina (the Fancy Lady). She accompanies the dead to the other side and reunites them with loved ones so they can spend eternity together. The costumes are not specifically Mexican but derived satirically from a popular artist who made fun of the upper classes while mimicking Spanish aristocracy during the reign of Porfirio Diaz in the late 1900's. Jose Guadeloupe Posada created the emaciated character and illustrated her wearing fancy clothes, often dancing or playing musical instruments.

Visiting La Paz

La Paz is home to a large expat community from the United States and has a history rich in fishing. John Steinbeck immortalized it in his novel The Pearl. Today an enormous mirrored pearl sculpture sits next to the pier. Filmmakers have used the city for scenes and several hotels pay homage to the actress, Elizabeth Taylor who spent weeks in the city. British nobility visited in the 1950's as well.

The city sits north of Los Cabos on the Sea of Cortez, which legendary diver Jacques Cousteau lovingly titled 'The Aquarium of the World." Ever since the waters have drawn scuba enthusiasts who find plenty of dive shops and boats to shuttle them to sites each fall when the waters clear and before the dry region heats up. Cruise ships also dock in town and the peninsula near the airport is dotted with luxury hotels.

If you visit, fly in using the cross-country bridge into the Tijuana airport from San Diego or arrive from Mexico City. Rent a car, take taxis, and explore, but time your trip to attend the Dia de Muertos festival. You won't regret it.

Woman and man dressed up for dia de muertos, la paz mexico
Photo: Dave Rudie.

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