Throughout history, cultures from across the globe have had various philosophies regarding life and death, non more so ancient — and vibrant — than Hispanic cultures. And, of the many festivities that are observed in the Hispanic world there is arguably no event that’s more spiritually and socially significant than Dia de los Muertos (the “Day of the Dead”). While there are similar celebrations to honor the lives of the dead in various Latin American countries, it’s in Mexico, where the Day of the Dead first originated, that the grandest activities take place. An interesting mix of Mexico’s ancient Aztec rituals and Roman Catholicism brought over by the Spanish, Dia de los Muertos is not be confused with Halloween; the main emphasis here is remembering the activities that brought joy to the deceased and getting together with family and the community to celebrate their lives.
And in recent years in the United States, especially in cities with large Mexican communities, Day of the Dead observances have become more and more popular — growing into meaningful and authentic celebrations of culture. So if you’re looking to experience this annual event yourself, check out this list of the best places to celebrate the Day of the Dead in America.
Explained on their website as “an event that was created to serve the public need to mourn, reflect, and celebrate the universal experience of Death, through their ancestors, loved ones, and the living,” Tucson’s All Souls Procession is one of America’s biggest Day of the Dead celebrations. It’s been around since 1990 and honors the Hispanic rites and rituals associated with honoring the lives of the dead. The All Souls Procession is also special because it acts as an artistic platform where art, music, and dance are fused together to celebrate the lives of loved ones from various religious, and cultural backgrounds. The traditional procession is a two-mile trek to a giant urn, where the letters, wishes, and offerings of the over 150,000 marchers are burned in ceremonial fashion.
San Diego, California
For a two-day Dia de los Muertos celebration that’s about as authentic as festivities in Mexico itself, you only have to look for cheap flights to San Diego to witness firsthand. The city’s Old Town marketplace is given a breath of new life every November for the Old Town Festival, of which the Day of the Dead celebrations are a part. The entire space is dedicated to activities that include face painting, public memorials, giant skeleton puppets, Aztec and folkórico dancing, and live music…and of course some delectable food options! The highlight of proceedings is the free-to-attend candlelight procession, which is usually held on November 2.
Did you know?: The famous skeletal face of a lady “La Catrina” that’s often seen painted on the faces of Dia de los Muertos participants is inspired by La Calavera Catrina, an early 1900s zinc etching by Mexican illustrator Jose Posada. The image was meant to be a criticism of indigenous Mexicans who try to take on European customs and then forget about their own roots. The “Dame of Death” has since gone on to personify the Mexican attitude of laughing at death and embracing it as a cycle of life.
Los Angeles, California
There’s no lack of Hispanic heritage in the historic Olvera Street neighborhood, and it all just gets turned up a notch for the annual Day of the Dead festivities. The annual Olvera Street Día de los Muertos celebration lasts an epic nine days, and each night is inspired by traditional pre-Columbian roots and rituals on honoring the dead. Processions start with a traditional Mayan blessing and includes Aztec dancers. You can also enjoy the free sweet bread and champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate made with corn flour) that are handed out to marchers. It’s the perfect place to admire community altars on display, decorative skull painting stalls, and other traditional musical performances.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Fort Lauderdale offers its own unique spin to the festivities at the city’s Florida Day of the Dead Celebration — one of the grandest Día de los Muertos celebrations in the country. The free event hosts many relevant and insightful exhibits featuring arts and live performances throughout the city, which all leads up to the main procession on November 2. This special day begins with a Meso-American indigenous welcome that brings visitors to various stages that present traditional dance, music, and handicrafts. There are also numerous stalls selling skeleton costumes and mask vendors for those taking part in the procession. You can also enjoy plenty of beautiful ofrendas, unbelievable giant skeleton puppets, and breathtaking folkórico musical performances.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco’s Mission District plays host to the annual Festival of Altars, which takes place on November 2 in Potrero Del Sol Park (La Raza Park). Participants are encouraged to have a respectful attitude while enjoying the many community altars on display, and are encouraged to bring flowers, candles, and mementos of loved ones to contribute to these altars. Right after the Festival of Altars, there’s a Dia de los Muertos procession where attendees can dress up in their Day of the Dead outfits and pay respects to their loved ones at a variety of different altars.
San Antonio, Texas
It’s no surprise that San Antonio has a great Day of the Dead celebration; the city identifies as being 64% Hispanic or Latino, so you know you’ll be in the midst of celebrations with some deep roots. Some of the major highlights of celebrations in the city include the processions in the downtown La Villita Historic Arts Village, as well as the massive Dia de Los Muertos festival (AKA “Muertofest”) that’s held at the end of October. Muertofest is a very music-focused event and has a lively lineup of LatinX artists who play everything from traditional to alternative and experimental music. The schedule also includes an altar exhibition and contest, food and art vendors, puppet parades, live poetry performances, and more.
Have we missed out any other cities with great Dia de Los Muertos celebrations? Share them with us in the comments section!