Day of the Dead Celebrated In La Paz

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By Susan Fogel

The air smells like cinnamon. You can feel the pulsing music. We are following our noses and the beat of the music and the crowd.

The outdoor stage is lit in ghostly pale, icy, blue and white lights. Smoke wafts up eerily from the footlights.

A line of young girls in jewel-toned, hoop –skirted, colonial dresses appears stage left. The turquoise, purple, scarlet, and emerald dresses sparkle in the stage lights. Their picture hats are wide and adorned with paper flowers and lace. Their hair is plaited and interwoven with ribbons. They stop, turn and face forward. The audience gasps in delight and breaks into loud applause. The girl’s faces are painted in death masks. The eerie smile of a skeleton’s head. It is Day of the Dead in La Paz.Las Catrina's at the Day of the Dead celebration in La Paz.

And when family and friends want to visit, we try to get them to come for Day of the Dead. This is an authentic celebration, a genuine community event. If you haven’t yet attended, you must plan to be in La Paz for the Day of the Dead festivities at least once as it is a long time tradition and you will not be disappointed.

Day of the Dead in Mexico is officially November 2nd. However, the holiday is celebrated between October 31st and November 2nd to coincide with All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, minor holidays in the Catholic Calendar. Traditionally, November 1st is the day for honoring dead children and infants and November 2nd is the day for honoring deceased adults. It is believed that the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest at this time. It is a time to pay homage to relatives and friends that have died. And to poke fun at death. And ghosts walk among us.

The distant sounds of the city are like a whisper on the wind, a sound not relevant to the mix of life and death we are celebrating.

Traditionally the family would gather at the grave of their loved one, bringing their dead relative’s favorite foods. They tell stories, sing songs and eat. All over Mexico in cemeteries big and small this celebration takes place. And in La Paz we have an additional celebration. In the parking lot of the Teatro de La Ciudad booths are set up like a fair. Except each booth is a “grave” or an “altar”. Different organizations and clubs and businesses dedicate their grave to someone they admire, a fallen colleague or one year in the case of the women’s center, to bring attention to domestic violence. And another year a dedication was made to firefighters.

Girls and women, men and boys dress up as La Catrina, the elegant skeleton women created by Jose Guadalupe Posada and then later popularized by French artist and art historian, Jean Charlot in the 1920s. Last year a group of students from the Autonomous University (UABCS) built an award-winning booth about Jean Charlot and La Catrina.

Posada lithographIn 1913 Posada created a tintype called “La Catrina” and then continued to depict famous people as a Catrina and added a poem.

Costumes range from simple, to elegant, to super–cool. Each participant wears a number so the public can vote for the best Catrina. They wander through the crowd and strike poses, they will allow you to take their photo and will pose with you, but they will never utter a word.

Flowers and corn and colorful sand paintings tell the story of the graves honoree. To help bring back the dearly departed for a night, pieces of their clothing, their favorite book, a guitar, their picture, and in one case a favorite teacher’s entire living room complete with reading glasses and shawl was recreated.

And we viewed it through a window. On hand are the grave creators to tell the story of their honoree.

Other booths sell Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead Bread) a round, sweet loaf decorated with bones made of dough. Clay pots of café de ollo simmer and it is from them the cinnamon emanates. It is a wonderful strong- sweet coffee drink.

Artisans come laden with their wares. Every year until my grandsons outgrew such things, I purchased the latest light up yo-yo or funky fish.

There are constant performances on the open air stage. But once you have toured the graves and sipped your coffee, bought a tamale, and a sugar skull, stop and watch the crowd. The young cool crowd has artfully painted only half their faces. And the “sexy dead” have black veils, crimson roses and almost see-through dresses. There is one I call Bianca Jagger with her gorgeous black lace dress, silver tipped cane and cigar.

jack and I at the Day of the Dead Festival at the Teatro de la Ciudad, 2013We love this celebration, and we mix Halloween with Day of the Dead. My 3D cardboard pop-up Day of the Dead altar has been dedicated over the years to my friend Gina Holguin, Paul Newman and my grandson, Thomas Fogel. Perhaps this year will be Mohammed Ali

And every year we attend with anticipation and are never disappointed. It is at Teatro de La Ciudad on November 1st and 2nd. My beloved and I attend at least once. We invite friends over for pumpkin soup and then head out to town. It has become a special holiday for us.

The Teatro de la Ciudad or city theater, is located on Navarro between Altamirano and Heroes de Independencia.

You can read more of Susan’s La Paz slice of life musings on her blog:


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