Navigating Mexico: The Dead Are Back!

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PUERTO VALLARTA, Jalisco — Cancelled last year as a precautionary measure due to the covid-19 pandemic, Mexico City’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) parade is back on track this year.

The parade — a recent phenomenon popularized by Hollywood-style movies (specifically, the 2015 James Bond thriller “Spectre”) — is a mobile collection of large whimsical papier-mâché figures called alebrijes that depict animals, people, objects and imaginary creatures painted with intense colors and intricate patterns.

Although these distinctive cultural artifacts are often assumed to represent an entrenched or ancient tradition of Mexican folk art, they only began to appear in the 1940s.

During the colorful parade, spectators and participants alike paint themselves in some of the same colors and patterns.

Previously only an attraction for a small niche group of tourist to far-away indigenous communities who would come to witness traditional Day of the Dead ceremonies from the religious aspect of the holiday, the Día de Muertos parade brings in thousands of tourists and their dollars to Mexico City, with hotels along the parade route charging prime rates and street vendors in overdrive selling everything from food to skulls.

Legend has it that the word “alebrijes” was invented in the 1940s by the scrap-metalist Pedro Linares, a junk collector by trade, originally from Oaxaca. According to the story, at the age of 30, Linares fell ill, lost consciousness and faded into a deep dream trance, which would reveal strange creatures that would change his destiny as a craftsman.

They say that Linares, while in bed, unconscious, traveled to a strange world, a very peaceful place, similar to a forest with large trees, rocks and abstract animals. In the sky, the passing clouds made him feel calm and the wind took his pain away.

But during one of those nocturnal walks, everything around him began to take on strange shapes; rocks, clouds and animals gradually became fantastic beings, surreal animals with wings, crests, claws, horns and long teeth.

These were characters that he had never seen before, not him, not anyone. There was a donkey with wings, a rooster with bullhorns, a lion with the head of a dog. These magical beings in unison cried out the word: Alebrije!  While all of these objects were melding into a mesh of terror, the voices became louder and louder: Alebrije, Alebrije, Alebrije!

The word had no meaning in Spanish or Nahuatl, but it was the name that Linares decided to give to the papier-mâché figures he recreated from his dreams.

This year’s Day of the Dead parade — replete with oversized alebrije floats and marching bands of the living dead — is due to take place on Sunday, Oct. 31, starting at 12 noon from Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo.

The one-kilometer-long caravan will exit the Zócalo onto 5 de Mayo Street, continuing up Juárez Avenue, past the Alameda Park, and then turn onto Paseo de la Reforma to conclude at the Campo Marte military base, just past the National Auditorium.

The caravan will be divided into five themed segments: Tenochtitlán, the heart of Mexico, Mexico City today, magic and tradition, and finally, a celebration of life.


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