Celebrating Día de los Muertos in Puebla
A popular holiday in Mexico, Day of the Dead provides an occasion to honor lost loved ones and pray for their souls. The celebrations, which merge Catholic and indigenous beliefs, typically unfold over the course of a few days, culminating on Nov. 1 (All Saints Day, devoted to children) and Nov. 2 (All Souls Day, dedicated to adults). Traditions vary from region to region, but the sacred tributes almost always involve an altar that’s carefully adorned with gifts for the deceased, such as favorite foods and beverages, personal items related to past passions or hobbies, votive candles and other religious symbols or artifacts, and salt and water to “purify the soul.” These ofrendas vary wildly in style, ranging from humble to extravagant, playful to serious, and historical to innovative. Anyone can be honored, whether it’s a close relative or a beloved celebrity. Most of the altars are located inside private homes and businesses, but people tend to show them off with pride, often welcoming strangers to admire their handiwork.
Puebla isn’t as well-known for its Day of the Dead celebrations as a few other Mexican locales, but visitors who are interested in taking part in — and learning more about — the holiday will find plenty to see and do. Here are a few suggestions.
For a spectacular public Day of the Dead display, head for the Casa de la Cultura (5 Oriente #5, on the other side of the cathedral from the city’s main square). For 40 years now, the cultural center has hosted an annual altar-building contest that offers visitors a chance to see a large, diverse array of ofrendas in one place and even ask their creators questions about them. “The goal is to promote and maintain our traditions of Mexico,” director Margarita Melo Díaz told the local newspaper Sintesis. “Recall that, in 2003, Day of the Dead was recognized as a cultural heritage event by UNESCO, and it is our job as Mexicans to preserve it.” This year, the work of contenders in two categories, traditional and free expression, will be on display from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Previous exhibitions have featured indigenous altars (adorned with beans, grains, seeds, etc.) and modern tributes to the planet Earth, Frida Kahlo, the wrestler Santo, actor Pedro Infante, and even Pope John Paul II. The exhibit is also a fine place to purchase souvenirs, from sugar skulls to handcrafted figurines. Admission is free.
The Institute of Municipal Art and Culture is also sponsoring an altar-building contest, as well as sculpture and calaverita competitions, all around the theme “Death Is a Dream.” Calaveritas are short, playful poems (epitaphs in rhyming verses) that poke fun at living people as if they were dead. The top entries in all three events will be on display in the zócalo from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. If you happen to be in the main square, peek inside the Palacio Municipal (Portal Hidalgo #14), where the local government usually sets up a grand ofrenda in the foyer on the ground floor.
San Andrés Cholula
The Francisco Peláez R. Ethnobotanical Garden (2 Sur #1700) on Oct. 29 and 30 will host Ofrenda entre flores y rituales, a celebration that seeks to re-create Day of the Dead traditions through the arts and people’s sensory contact with nature. Activities include music, folkloric dance, storytelling, and dinner, plus the creation of a collective altar, for which guests are invited to bring bread, candy, candles, flowers — whatever they’d like to contribute. “The event suggests a connection with the history and traditions without making them dogmas or folklore,” the organizers said. The festivities start at 7 p.m.; admission is MX$80 in advance, MX$100 on the days of the event.
This small town in Puebla state, about 45 minutes west of the capital city, celebrates Day of the Dead in a big way. The ofrendas, which sometimes cost tens of thousands of pesos to assemble, are impressive structures that measure up to 10 feet high. The altars themselves are often made of cardboard and covered with white or pastel-colored satin; the shiny fabric gives the multilevel tributes a distinctively Huaquechulan look. The first level represents the underworld and bears a photo of the decreased with incense, flowers, and food, explains EscapeAtlixco.com, which promotes the Atlixco area. “The second level represents the union of heaven and earth or the human and the divine. The third level represents the sky, or the highest divinity, and this is always represented with a cross.”
From Oct. 28 to Nov. 1 every year, many townspeople open their doors to visitors who’d like to pay their respects to the dead. It is customary to leave a candle or a few coins at the altar and to accept food and drink — such as bread and hot chocolate or a tamale and tequila or hibiscus water — from the host family. Tourist tip: Start your tour mid-afternoon at the cultural center on the town square, which provides a map to homes with ofrendas. Look for the trails of marigold petals leading to altars from the street.