I’ll never forget living in Quito during Holy Week. As a Catholic, the week is something special to me, but I never thought much about it. Holy Week comes, we go to Mass a couple extra times, music returns to the church, hallelujah. But in Quito, I went to a re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross, where the man playing Jesus really looked to be suffering. The cross was heavy, the sweat real, and more astonishing still, where the Cross rubbed into his shoulder, real blood appeared.

True to the Stations, a man comes to assist "Jesus" with the cross.

True to the Stations, a man comes to assist “Jesus” with the cross.

Suddenly the Stations of the Cross meant something else, as I stood uncomfortably, watching the suffering of this volunteer actor before me, and for the first time in my life, truly picturing what the actual event was like.

And so when we travel, we love finding a way to have our travels coincide with cultural celebrations. And if you want to understand Día de Los Muertos (Day of the dead), there are few places that celebrate it as well as Baja California.

A classical Dia de los Muertos altar in the community I work with in El Florido, Tijuana, Mexico

A proper visit requires a proper education. So what is Día de los Muertos and what is the significance of what you’ll encounter? The holiday is a two day celebration, you’ll find it everywhere in Mexico, but also in other parts of Latin America.

Día de los Muertos, simply put, is a beautiful cultural celebration to honor dead loved ones through music, food, drink, and festivities and activities the dead enjoyed while they were living. It is a beautiful blend of Catholicism and the indigenous Aztec culture. But to me, the most touching part of the celebration is how the dead are intimately recalled and for two days “awakened” from their eternal slumber to be present with us.

Often times elaborate alters are built to remember the dead at their place of rest. On these alters, you’ll find the food and drink the deceased preferred, along with photos and memorabilia. For adults, don’t be surprised to find bottles of tequilla or mezcal, where children’s alters sadly have favorite toys. Much like an Irish Wake, the focus on the day is more on celebrating the life of the deceased even though mourning and prayers are a part of the day. You’ll see a ton of Flor de muerto, an orange marigold flower that is thought to attract the souls of the dead to the gathering. There’s also often pan de muerto (bread of the dead).

But the most recognized part of the day are calaveras (skulls) and calacas (skeletons) that you find throughout the cultural celebrations. Some are beautifully decorated, others are dulces or candy to be eaten.

Beautifully painted skulls By User:Leonardob0880 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

While in Tijuana last week with my students in Loyola Marymount’s De Colores program, they were treated to a sample alter. It was an incredible experience for many students who only associate this time of year to Halloween- to realize that in other parts of the world, Halloween a European holiday, takes a back seat to All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2nd).

One of the young women in the community explains the significance of the Day of the Dead altar to my De Colores students

So hopefully we’ve peaked your curiosity about Día de Los Muertos. If you live in LA, check out the Hollywood Forever Cemetery for a taste or go to Olvera Street, the first street of LA. San Diego also has celebrations here and there. And while the intimate experience we had in Tijuana isn’t open to tourists (sorry guys), one of our favorite tour companies Tourista Libre runs a great tour to the largest Tijuana story where you’ll learn the controversial story of the cemetary’s unofficial Patron Saint- Juan Soldado.

So take a moment and recall your loved ones who has passed away these next two days. Maybe buy a bit of their favorite drink, bring out some memorabilia, and learn a thing or two from our brothers and sisters in the South and don’t just recall their life, honor it, and for a brief moment, bring them back and celebrate the impact they had while on this earth. Happy Día de los Muertos everyone.

We’d love to hear from you: What are some of the best cultural celebrations you’ve seen that we should look at covering?

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