Isla Mujeres Feature

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In Search of the Dead

El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is often described as a Mexican version of Halloween, but it’s much more than that. The festival, which takes place November 1 and 2, is a hybrid of pre-Hispanic and Christian beliefs that honors the cyclical nature of life and death. Local celebrations are as varied as they are dynamic, often laced with warm tributes and dark humor.

To honor departed loved ones at this time of year, families and friends create ofrendas, altars adorned with photos, flowers, candles, liquor, and other items whose colors, smells, and potent nostalgia are meant to lure spirits back for a family reunion. The favorite foods of the deceased are prepared with extra spice so that the souls can absorb the essence of the offerings. Although the ofrendas and the colorful calaveritas (sugar skulls and skeletons) are common everywhere, the holiday is observed in so many ways that a definition of it depends entirely on what part of Mexico you visit.

In a sandy Isla Mujeres cemetery, Marta, a middle-aged woman wearing a tidy pantsuit and stylish sunglasses, rests on a fanciful tomb in the late-afternoon sun. "She is my sister," Marta says, motioning toward the teal-and-blue tomb. "I painted this today." Instead of mourning, she’s smiling, happy to be spending the day with her sibling.

Nearby, Juan puts the final touches—vases made from shells he’s collected—on his father’s colorful tomb. A glass box holds a red candle and a statue of the Virgin Mary, her outstretched arms pressing against the glass as if trying to escape the flame. "This is all for him," Juan says, motioning to his masterpiece, "because he is a good man."

—David Downing

Updated: 2014-08-13

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