Día de los Muertos: Up Close

This year, we teamed up with taco journalist Mando Rayo to cover one of the most important celebrations of Mexican culture: Día de los Muertos. He traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, to participate in the festivities and capture the details for this feature. 

Día de los Muertos occurs on November 1 and November 2 (traditionally). At its heart, the day is dedicated to honoring and celebrating deceased ancestors through ofrendas (offerings) consisting of food and gifts. 

Other activities associated with Día de los Muertos include dressing up in colorful ensembles, face painting, parades and meals with traditional foods like moles, tacos and tlayudas  — large, thin, crunchy tortillas that can be covered with refried beans, asiento, lettuce, cabbage, Oaxaca cheese, salsa and other toppings.

Oaxaca is located in southern Mexico, and it is known for its preservation of indigenous cultures. Upon arrival, Mando immediately felt an energy about the area. 

“Arriving in Oaxaca, you have this sense that you're in a different place, in a magical place, a place that, while during the day there's a lot of hustle and bustle, people are living their lives, but in the evenings, it’s about the celebrations,” he said. “It's a place where food, art and the culture come together in a way that just makes sense. And for me, being Mexicano, I felt right at home.”

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Mando noted how everyone seemed involved in the celebrations — from regular people to small businesses to late-night vendors, artists and even government organizations. 

Some of the highlights from the celebrations included sand sculptures, life-size puppetry, bands playing in the streets and — of course — tasty treats like tacos, tlayudas and a traditional Oaxacan drink known as tejate, which is an artisanal production formed from toasted corn, cacao beans, toasted mamey pits, sugar and cacao flower. 

One night, Mando even ran into a comparsa — a group of singers, musicians and dancers — parading down a closed road. The parade included intricate floats, people with detailed body paint designs and giant puppets meant to represent the muertos that required several people to operate. 

But of course, amid the celebrations, it’s important to remember that Día de los Muertos is truly about connecting with and honoring ancestors. Mando visited a cemetery during the festival; some families gathered around tombstones with ornate displays; others played music. Later, he came across a solemn family who appeared to be mourning. 

“As I walked through the cemetery, I witnessed a family very intentionally sitting with what seemed to be grief,” he said. “I asked if I could honor their family by giving my piece of pan de muerto. They gladly took it, and it allowed me to reflect on the meaning behind this trip and how I can honor those in my family who have passed on.”

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Visiting Oaxaca for Día de los Muertos would be an unforgettable experience for anyone. Still, Mando felt a particular excitement for this trip — in part because it had been delayed and it had been a long time since he’d been back to Mexico. 

“I love this exploration of people’s culture, food, and the arts and coming to Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico,” he said. “It really resonated with me as being Mexicano, but also living so many years outside of Mexico in the U.S. It really brought home a lot of  close feelings and my deepening my connection to my indigenous roots, mestizo roots and my continued efforts to support and showcase la cultura.”

You can keep up with Mando Rayo and follow his next adventures here.

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