Mexico Life
Participants wait for the start of Sunday's Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. Participants wait for the start of Sunday's parade in Mexico City. susannah rigg

Behind the scenes at Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade

The event that began three years ago with a James Bond film is becoming a tradition

What began because of the 2015 James Bond film Spectre has now taken on a form of its own in Mexico City.

Sunday’s Day of the Dead parade celebrated its third year, having kicked off as the opening scenes of the film in which a parade of giant skeletons and crowds of people in masks and costumes moved through the historic center.

The filmmakers created the huge parade, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Mexico City before, and with it they sparked imaginations. The following year the tourism board decided to recreate the event and it has fast become known as a part of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico’s capital.

This year it attracted some 1.5 million people who lined the streets to watch as the vibrant and colorful spectacle passed by.

While some lament the inauthenticity of the parade, I couldn’t help wondering how those involved felt about being part of it. In the lead-up to the event I headed backstage to talk to the participants and find out what it meant for them.

Colorful costumes for Day of the Dead.
Colorful costumes for Day of the Dead. susannah rigg

As I arrived at the tents set back on the outskirts of Polanco at 11:00am, I was greeted by hundreds of people already dressed in their outfits and with full make-up on for a parade that would not start for another five hours. The excitement and nervous energy was palpable and groups sat waiting for their chance to dance through the streets of the city.

The make-up tent was full of artists armed with black, white and gold paint spray guns to cover participants’ faces and bodies in a thin even color and convert them into their characters. Others painted shadows on to the dancers’ faces, creating the illusion of skulls, hollowed-out cheeks and eyes. The make-up tent had an intense atmosphere. Focused professionals painting one face after another after another.

There were tents full of costumes. Lines and lines of skulls in different designs and varying sizes, sombreros, wings and even colorful bicycles. Those in charge of the costumes counted their supplies and waited patiently to hand them out as they neared the start time.

This year four states were invited to join in on the action. Groups from Oaxaca, Aguascalientes, Michoacán and San Luis Potosí made their way to Mexico City to be part of the parade.

I was drawn to the tent of participants from Oaxaca. The women were sitting together in traditional blouses and colorful skirts.

“We are so proud to be here. It’s our roots,” said Marisol and Xóchitl from behind a face painted in a skull-like form. They had traveled from the town of Juquila.

A brass band from Oaxaca awaits start of the parade.
A brass band from Oaxaca awaits start of the parade. susannah rigg

“We want to show that Oaxaca is more beautiful than many people think.”

They described how excited they were to bring their traditions from Oaxaca and show them to a much wider audience in Mexico City. Their enthusiasm showed as they smiled and laughed, perhaps a little nervous to parade along the streets of Mexico’s capital, and to be interviewed, but delighted to be there.

As is traditional in most Oaxacan parades, the brass band was present. The Donají Band, also from Juquila, was warming up, playing traditional songs heard in the calendas, as parades are called in Oaxaca. I heard them playing in beautiful harmony, and shouts of “Viva Oaxaca” rang out from behind the tents.

All the states invited to join the parade have rich traditions of Day of the Dead. San Luis Potosí was a last-minute addition to the program but its rituals at this time of year are fascinating.

“We are tricking death,” one male dancer dressed as a grandmother told me. “The men dress as women and the women dress as men so that death can’t touch us.”

In a tradition that I was told lasts some two months, the dancers start with a ritual on September 29 when they ask for the spirits to be allowed to return to earth. The final offerings to dismiss the souls are made on November 30.

Elaborate headdresses, painted faces and colorful dresses.
Elaborate headdresses, painted faces and colorful dresses. susannah rigg

“For us, it is an honor to be here,” a dancer from the Jacarandos group said. “It’s the first time that they have invited us and we are proud to represent La Huasteca Potosina.”

As he posed for photos in the intricately carved mask of an elderly lady while holding on to a walking frame, it was hard to remember that there was a young man behind the costume.

Dancers walked by in traditional folkloric-dance outfits from Jalisco, others in black dresses topped with silver geometric shapes swarmed by in a large group. There was a whole tent of Fridas, each group of about 20 inspired by a different one of Frida Kahlo’s paintings.

“We are the painting with the monkey,” two participants wearing headdresses made of huge leaves and leaf print skirts said. “Later we will dance with the monkeys on our shoulders.”

A young girl from Mexico City, Andrea Pérez, was having her hair done by her mother, who was standing outside the fence that cordoned the area off to the public.

“I am pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread),” Pérez said. “Later I will put the bread headdress on.”

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It was Perez’s third time in the parade and each year she has had a different outfit. In 2017 she was a corpse bride. It was clear that she loves being part of it and her mom smiled and looked on with pride.

A few people dressed as butterflies fluttered by, the participants from Michoacán.

While there is some criticism of the parade for not being truly traditional, backstage there was nothing but excitement and joy from the participants who were delighted to be part of this celebration of their culture.

Later that afternoon the streets filled with onlookers trying to get the best spot. Many had their faces painted, others came in costume. The crowd oohed and aahed as the boats of skeletons rowed by, dancers with neon wings fluttered past and a large bed featuring an enormous Frida in repose moved through the street. The huge Bond-inspired skeletons made their way along Paseo de la Reforma to the delight of the crowd.

While the tradition might be a new one in Mexico City, the invitation to different states to bring their own deeply-rooted rituals allowed onlookers to experience the important and longstanding traditions of their country in a way that they may never have been able to before. It seems like this new tradition might be here to stay.

Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist based in Mexico City. Her work has been published by BBC Travel, Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel and The Independent UK among others. Find out more about Susannah on her website.

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