In this colonial city in Mexico's highlands, celebrations for the annual festival are open to locals and visitors alike.

Day of the Dead in Mexico
Credit: © Ann Summa

In Mexico, Death has always been a familiar character: female, comforting, sardonic. The Aztecs made Death a She and spent a month every fall acknowledging her power and welcoming back the souls of the departed. These days Death is better known in the iconic form of La Calavera Catrina, a character created by political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada more than 100 years ago.

She is a skeleton socialite decked out in a turn-of-the-century wide-brimmed French chapeau, underscoring the theme that she comes for the rich and famous as well as the rest of us. Diego Rivera later borrowed the figure to use in one of his massive murals in the Alameda in Mexico City. He gave her a full runway-ready outfit.

While La Catrina is ubiquitous in Mexico, adorning everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs, she has none of the faux fear factor of Halloween imagery. She is to be celebrated as an unavoidable and essential part of life and death, and Dia de los Muertos is her fiesta.

Festival La Calaca

In Mexico, the first days of November are the time to remember those who have passed out of this life. Children and adults each get their own day (November 1 and 2, respectively). People remembering their dead build ofrendas (altars) in their home, lay out a path of marigold petals for the dead to follow to the altar, and in many places spend the entire night in the local graveyard, eating and drinking, welcoming the dead back from their resting place.

In San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, instead of welcoming the dead at midnight November 1 in graveyards, they throw a weeklong public party—the Festival La Calaca (the Skull Festival). It features several parades, all-night celebrations with name DJs, art installations, dances, talks on the dead, plays, public altars in homes and the streets around the Jardin, children’s workshops where young ones paint skulls, and more parades. There’s even a nude photography shoot with scores of volunteer subjects.

Death never had it so good.

One of the staples here is the Catrina Parade, put on by Rancho Los Labradores, a community outside town. Fourteen years ago Sergio Chazaro, the patriarch at Los Labradores, noticed that the American version of Halloween was starting to overshadow the traditional sensibility of Dia de los Muertos, bypassing the historical roots that go back centuries and reach deep into the Mexican soul. In response, he and a handful of friends started going around giving candy to kids while dressed up as Catrinas and Catrines, a latter-day male escort for Lady Death that gave men a chance to put on skull make-up and participate.

Getting the Visitors up to Speed

As the Catrina parade got more popular it was opened up to anyone who wanted to join, including locals and visitors, and Mexicans and foreigners—unlike other events that are limited to specific groups: San Miguel residents, school students, or certain barrios.

“When the foreigners started coming they didn’t know how to put on the makeup,” says Gretel Chazaro, Sergio’s daughter. “They looked like panda bears.” Consequently, the Labradores began hiring make-up artists to help would-be Catrines and Catrinas, and throwing a dinner party and fashion show afterwards.

For this year’s parade, more than 400 people will be coming to two locations, the Rosewood Hotel and Pabellon Inmobiliario to get their best Tim Burton-esque makeover, done with the assistance of a crew of 30 professionals. Reservations are recommended.

While La Calavera Catrina is viewed as a companion who guides the newly dead into the land beyond the grave, the migrating monarch butterfly, which arrives in the mountains of Michoacan around November 1, is also associated with Dia de Los Muertos. The indigenous Purepecha of the area believed they were the souls of the departed coming back for their yearly visit.

As part of the Festival La Calaca, there will be children’s workshops in Juarez Park where they make wings to dress up as butterflies for their own parade. The week’s events are underway and continue through November 8. A full program schedule can be found here. The Los Labradores Catrina parade starts November 1 at 7 p.m. from the Rosewood, following the make-up session and cocktails. “We are helping tourists have the direct experience of being the Catrinas,” says Gretel Chazaro. “They’re not just watching. And everyone is invited.”

Jeff Spurrier is based in San Miguel de Allende, and covers the Mexico beat for Travel + Leisure.