Category Archives: Culture and traditions

Experiencing the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is one of 31 states along with the autonomous capital, Mexico City, that make up the United States of Mexico. Much of the land that makes up the 32 states continues to be occupied by the descendants of indigenous people who lived there thousands of years before. Though they’re now joined together as the country of Mexico, each state continues to maintain a unique identity; perhaps none more than the state of Oaxaca.

Located along the Pacific Ocean in southeastern Mexico, Oaxaca is made up of rough terrain and numerous mountain ranges, making it historically difficult for tribal groups to travel from village to village. The relative isolation of the inhabitants in different parts of the state created an environment where many different indigenous languages, customs, food, and art have been preserved to this day. One of the best times to observe the rich cultural diversity in Oaxaca is in early November, when Dia de Muertos celebrations are happening around the state.

Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, is a sacred Mexican tradition. It is believed that for a few days every year, the barrier between the living and spiritual world is thin enough to allow the dead to visit their loved ones. Dia de Muertos dates back thousands of years to the ancient Mexican civilizations like the Aztecs, Toltecs and Mexicos. They believed that death was a natural part of the life cycle and mourning the dead was disrespectful. Instead, they were believed to live on as part of the community in spirit. 

beautiful altars ofrendas

In Oaxaca, different villages have varied customs and traditions that begin on October 31st and continue through November 2nd. Most people in this part of the country celebrate the occasion in the old way. They start by cleaning and decorating the graves of their loved ones with candles and marigolds (because their strong scent is believed to attract the spirit making the journey back to Earth). On the night of Dia de Muertos, they sit at the gravesite of their departed loved ones, singing, toasting and celebrating them. 

Another tradition involves creating beautiful altars, ofrendas, in homes to entice the departed to come as well as to offer sustenance and support for their return journey. 

Many towns hold parades in which people decorate their faces with skull paint, perform traditional dances, and joyously celebrate those that have passed away. The local markets carry a delicacy called pan de muerto, a round yolk bread with decorative heads baked into. Another common part of the Day of the Dead tradition in Oaxaca is the creation of sand tapestries, tapetes de arena; whimsical images of skeletons made from sand. 

The Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Late October is a wonderful time to observe the unique cultural identities of the various cities and villages in Oaxaca, as the people faithfully carry on ancient customs and traditions that have been passed down through numerous generations. 

What you don’t know about Mexico…

We’ve talked a lot about Mexican history and culture in this blog, but there are still many misperceptions about this country that stubbornly linger in the American consciousness. In today’s political climate of nationalism, many folks are guilty of lumping other countries and their people into simplified categories. What’s really at the root of these generalizations, though, is a lack of understanding of cultural differences. 

biodiversity the people of Mexico

Because of media coverage and political rhetoric, many in the U.S. think of crime, poverty and lack of modernization when we think of Mexico. But those misperceptions pay an enormous disservice to this beautiful, diverse and colorful country, with a long, rich cultural history that is still present today. So what are some interesting things about Mexico that are commonly unknown? 

The natural beauty and biodiversity of the country are unparalleled. It’s home to a great number of both animal and plant species, due in large part to the fact that there are seven different climate zones. Travelling across the country, you would run into everything from deserts to tropical rain forests to areas that enjoy a mild Mediterranean climate. 

about Mexico

One of the more pervasive and incorrect concepts is that the general lack of wealth in the people of Mexico is due to laziness and lack of work ethic. Compared to every other country in the world, Mexicans work the longest average hours. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who’s taken the time to get to know Mexican immigrants in the U.S., as they are one of the hardest working groups in our country as well. 

Another fascinating part of Mexico is the many archaeological ruins that reside within its borders. Are you aware that the largest pyramid in the world is not located in Egypt? It’s in the Mexican state of Puebla and is called the Great Pyramid of Cholula. It measures 180 feet tall and 1.480 feet wide on all sides. It was built prior to the Spanish Conquest  in the 1500’s. Imagine constructing something that impressive before the advent of modern tools!

Great Pyramid of Cholula Mexico

Finally, there’s the false belief that Mexicans are miserable in their own country and want nothing more than to leave and immigrate to the U.S.A. The Happy Planet Index ranks populations around the world based on factors such as well-being, life expectancy and equality. The U.S. ranked among the lowest in the world, while Mexico measured at the top of the range.

The planet would be a much better place if we all did a little more to learn about other cultures and resisted the urge to make gross generalizations. Though some politicians are reluctant to admit it, we have entered the era of globalism. Our economies, climate and very survival as a species are dependent on our ability to understand and work with other people from every part of the world, regardless of our differences.

The Story of Mariachis

The International Mariachi Festival held in Guadalajara, Jalisco, begins at the end of August and continues through the first week of September. This event includes concerts open to the public that feature visiting mariachi groups who’ve come from countries all over the globe. Workshops and lectures are also available to attend, focusing on the historical and cultural aspects surrounding one of the most recognizable musical traditions in the world. 

Mariachi music is believed to have originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco during the 1800’s. At that time, most mariachis were itinerant laborers, who wandered from one hacienda to the next. The music is a mixture of Spanish, native and African traditions and varies by region in Mexico. After the Mexican Revolution, the haciendas were forced to release the laborers, and mariachis began to play in public places for a fee. 

old traditions old mariachis

No matter where you’re from, you’ve likely seen and heard the unique spectacle that is a mariachi band. They’re easily recognized by the traditional costume they wear, called the “traje de charro”; a short jacket and tightly fitting wool pants, along with riding boots. Both the jacket and pants are often decked out with ornamental trim, and the whole outfit is topped off with a large sombrero, bow tie and belt. The band itself typically consists of a number of different instruments, including a least two violins, a Spanish guitar, two trumpets, a vihuela (high pitched five-string guitar), and a guitarron (a small acoustic bass). 

The Story of Mariachis

Mariachi music has always been intended for dancing. Zapateado, the traditional dance of mariachi music, originated in Spain and has the dancers driving the heels of their boots into the floor either on the beat or in syncopation with the music. Another traditional mariachi dance, the Mexican Hat Dance, has become the national dance of Mexico. The men wear the classic charro or cowboy outfit, and the women dress in bright, sequined skirts. The dancing is highly choreographed with specific movements. 

mexico dancers

Like Mexican culture in general, mariachi music has a festive, upbeat sound. It’s often played at joyous events like weddings, and is another example of the way Mexicans love to celebrate and cherish old traditions. 

Protecting The Endangered Sea Turtle

One of the goals of this blog is to introduce U.S. readers to the wonderful complexity of life in Mexico. If you have visited there, but limited your trip to a beach resort, where you drank tequila and enjoyed the white sand and crystal blue water, you’ve missed out. There is so much to learn about the history and culture of Mexico through activities such as exploring ancient ruins, attending festivals and cultural events and walking through one of the thousands of museums. And then there’s the enormous variety of marine wildlife that live in the oceans surrounding Mexico, one of the most interesting of which is the giant sea turtle.

The giant Sea Turtle

It’s incredible to think that every species of sea turtle in the world (with the exception of a single one that calls Australia home) nests on the beaches of Mexico. Every year between the months of May and October, sea turtles return to the same beaches on which they were hatched to lay their own eggs. Thus earning the country the reputation of being the sea turtle capital of the world. Unfortunately all species of giant sea turtles are on the endangered list due to habitat encroachment, overfishing, pollution and climate change. However, in 2013, Mexico passed an unprecedented law that offers a whole slate of new protections to these gentle giants and their habitats.

endangered sea turtle

The new regulation forbids the removal of any native vegetation from nesting habitats. The coastal plants serve a dual purpose; they help prevent beach erosion and protect the specific species of turtles, like the Hawksbill sea turtle, who prefer to crawl up the sand until they reach vegetation before building their nest. It also prohibits artificial light in the area. After hatching, the babies are biologically driven to look for the shine of the ocean’s surface to find their way into it. Lights from nearby homes or hotels can make them head in the wrong direction.

Protect the baby sea turtles

Another threat to the hatchlings that was banned is a practice that has been used by local hotels, in which they offer specials to tourists where they can take part in releasing the hatchlings into the sea. The issue is that the hotels kept the babies in confinement for a long time while they waited for enough people to sign up and pay for the privilege. Hatchlings need to get to the ocean as soon as possible after birth or they become weakened and the survival rate goes down. As of 2013, this practice is forbidden and hatchlings have to be released immediately.

All of the protections put in place were long overdue and are aimed at protecting the beaches, nesting grounds, mother turtles and hatchlings. However, should you visit Mexico in the next few months, you can still safely and respectfully view the magnificent ritual of turtle nesting and even volunteer to help protect the eggs and make sure the babies make it safely to the sea.

An Easter Experience

Sunday, April 21st is the official date of Easter this year. If you have little kids, the Easter bunny might come by your home to put candy in their baskets, you may set up an egg hunt or two, and if you’re a practicing Christian, the whole event may be preceded by attending a religious service. For Catholics, the occasions tends to be more pious.

The great majority of Mexican citizens consider themselves Catholic, a religion first introduced by the Spaniards during their occupation of Mexico over 500 years ago. While they were in power, Spanish rulers worked hard to convert the entire population to the Catholic religion, often using force. Mexicans eventually fought for and won back their independence, but after 300 years, the religion was firmly entrenched.

Recent statistics released by the Vatican name Mexico as the country with the second largest number of Catholics in the world. Combined with the enthusiasm in which Mexicans approach their history and culture, Easter is a celebration that goes on for weeks rather than a single day.

Carnival

Carnival, derived from the Spanish word for meat, carne, begins up to two weeks prior to lent. This is a time of living it up with parties and parades, big meals and abandon. Carnival is celebrated in many places; the largest occur in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. In Mexico, Mazatlan is the site for the biggest celebration in Mexico, followed by Veracruz City, Merida and Cozumel. The decadence is in preparation for the period of deprivation to come.

Lent

Lent represents the 40 days that Jesus Christ spent in the dessert, and to honor His sacrifice, Catholics will often cut back on the luxuries in their lives. Some people will choose their biggest weakness, such as alcohol or sweets, and commit to abstaining from consuming them during Lent.

Semana Santa

Translated, Semana Santa, means holy week, and during this time Mexicans celebrate the last days of Christ. This is a particularly fascinating part of the Easter tradition, in which many cities and townships stage a full reenactment of the capture, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The actors are chosen carefully and take their roles extremely seriously, offering moving and passionate performances.

Semana de Pascua

Easter week, the second week of the Easter, Pascua, celebration brings a different tone to the proceedings; a time for resurrection and new beginnings. Schools are closed and many families go to the beaches and other vacation destinations together.

Dia de Reyes: Celebrating a Visit From the Magi

Traditionally, Americans ring in the new year with a kiss, a toast and a glass of champagne, and pronounce the holiday season over. January represents an abrupt return to reality as we put those pesky new year’s resolutions to test, and try not panic when the Christmas bills come rolling in. The joy of Christmas is officially behind us. To the south, however, the most magical part of the season has yet to take place. In particular, all over the country on January 6th, you can find small children running to their shoes to see if the three kings have stopped in for a visit, leaving presents in their wake.

Dia de Reyes

Dia de Reyes (Day of Kings) marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas, and honors the three wise men who travelled from afar, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the infant baby Jesus. In Mexican households, it is traditional for children to leave out a pair of shoes on the eve of Dia de Reyes, with a hand-written wishlist. When they wake up in the morning, the legend goes that the Magi, or the three kings, have come during the night and left presents for the children.

Mexico Novels roscadereyes

Of course it wouldn’t be a Mexican holiday without parties, parades, public celebrations, and feasts, including traditional dishes to be enjoyed with family and friends. The most important culinary treat of the evening is the Rosca de Reyes, a cake baked in the shape of a king’s crown. It is the consistency of a sweet bread, and is adorned with dried fruit to represent jewels. Not visible from the outside of the Rosca de Reyes, a tiny Jesus doll is baked into the dessert.

Mexican holiday nativity scene

The doll tucked away in the cake symbolizes how the real Jesus had to be kept hidden from then-King Herod of Jerusalem. Herod had heard rumors that the new and rightful king of Jerusalem was soon to be born. Because he feared losing his power, he ordered his minions to kill all baby boys born around the time of Jesus Christ. They did not think, however, to look for a child born in a manger. Thus Jesus was safely hidden away similar to the effigy that is baked into the Rosca de Reyes. Whomever receives the piece of cake with the baby Jesus doll inside is then obligated to host the next holiday, Dia de la Candelaria on February 2nd.

There is a wonderful spirit in the air around the Christmas season.I believe much of this has to do with the extra effort we make to spend time with the people we love. Mexicans are really good at gathering together to celebrate both religious and cultural events all year-round, and it contributes to the strong family values for which they’re known.

Blended Faith

With the holidays upon us, I’ve been thinking about the unique mixture of Christianity and ancient religious beliefs that make up the holiday traditions in Mexico. Prior to Spain colonizing the country, there were complex and deeply instilled belief systems in the indigenous Indian cultures, such as Aztec, Mayan, Inca and others. Specifically, they did not believe in a single almighty deity, but rather many different gods who needed to be placated and worshiped. If they incurred the wrath of one of them, terrible things would happen.

After the Spaniards began to rule the country, however, they embarked on an extremely aggressive crusade to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism. Unfortunately, they set about doing this using force and violence rather than education, and it became a matter of survival for the Indians to embrace the new belief system. But they didn’t completely abandon the one that was so deeply ingrained in their societies. The result was a blend of Catholicism and the ancient cultural traditions and beliefs of the indigenous population.
Christianity and ancient religious beliefs
The Spanish conquistadors showed no mercy when it came to insisting the indigenous people adopt their religion, and the Indians responded by finding ways to pay homage to the Christian god while still appeasing their own. Often this meant demoting their gods to saints, and practicing indigenous rituals under the guise of Christianity. Some of the more barbaric practices, such as human and animal sacrifice, were abandoned, but many other rituals were modified so as to appear within the parameters of Christianity.
Santa Muerte
One example of this confluence of beliefs is the pseudo-saint, Santa Muerte (Saint Death). Her image is depicted by a skeleton wearing a long robe and holding a scythe, which is thought to be associated with the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. Many Mexicans believe she has power and control over their daily lives, and mimic the Catholic ritual of praying to her spirit and asking for grace, though Santa Muerte is not associated with Catholicism.

Interestingly, now that freedom of religion is part of the federal law in Mexico, some of the older, more vibrant and involved rituals are coming back in popularity. It demonstrates the same loyalty and dedication to following ancient cultural traditions and paying homage to their ancestors that Mexican display in many other areas of their lives.

The Day of the Dead

The name of this cultural tradition in Mexico may sound ominous, but it is actually an occasion filled with joy and celebration. The Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, occurs directly after Halloween, but there is no similarity between the two. On November 1, it is believed that souls of relatives and ancestors who have passed away have a 24 hour window in which to visit the living. Family members prepare in advance to honor and remember the life of their loved one, and spend the day celebrating the time they had together rather than mourning their deaths.

Ofrenda

They begin by building ofrendas earlier in the month, which are beautiful altars that they put up in their homes. They are made up of a number of traditional items as well as things the person loved in their lifetime. The ofrenda includes pictures, candles, buckets of marigold flowers, artifacts of favorite hobbies, and special foods, including turkey tamales, tortillas, fruits and Day of the Dead breads, specially baked for the occasion. Little toy skeletons and candy skulls, calaveras de azúcar, provide the final touches.

cultural tradition in Mexico

The ofrenda should both include these traditional elements as well as remember the essence of the relative they’re honoring For example, if someone were building an ofrenda for me, there would be books by my favorite authors, cinnamon and floral scented candles, little statues of dogs and pictures of all the pets I’ve owned over the years, sheet music for the piano and lots of chocolate! Those familiar items would make my family members remember the things that made me happy during my lifetime as well as please my visiting soul.

Day of the dead parade

Other traditions that fill the day include visiting the gravesite and decorating it with festive candles and flowers. And each town will put on events like parades, where they may be special dances performed by members of the community. These customs tend to carry more solemnity in the smaller villages than in the cities, where the festivities are larger in scale and more celebratory in nature. Like most celebrations in Mexico, the particular traditions and customs will vary from one part of the country to another, influenced by thousands of years of history.

Football or Futbol?

It happens every four years and is met with much anticipation and excitement in diverse countries around the world. I’m talking about the soccer (futbol) tournament, known as the World Cup, happening right now in Russia. Depending on where you live, the enthusiasm for this event can reach a fever pitch. In the United States, we can’t get enough of sports, from playing them ourselves to attending live events to creating an entire ritual around watching a game or match on TV our own living rooms or a local bar.

Football or Futbol?

When you mention futbol (which sounds phonetically like football) in this country, however, you may be met with some confusion. More often than not, the image of oversized men in shoulder pads knocking each other down is what comes to mind. Despite having a fairly short season, football is the number one sport in the U.S., followed by basketball, baseball and ice hockey. Soccer, which occupies the number five spot, is quickly gaining in popularity. And, with the 2026 World Cup set to be hosted by a joint effort from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, it’s possible the sport will move up the ranks even further.

football or futbal?

If you happen to bring up futbol in Mexico, there’s never any confusion. It’s their national sport and many top-ranked athletes hail from Mexico. But it wasn’t always that way. Soccer was introduced in Mexico in the early part of the last century, but the country didn’t make too much of a mark on the world scene until the World Cup was held in Mexico City in 1970. This is when futbol officially took off in Mexico, and by the time they hosted the 1986 World Cup, their national team was far more competitive and the fan-base has skyrocketed.

football or futbal?

The upcoming 2026 World Cup being a collaboration between the United States and our neighbors to the north and south can’t come at a better time. First, because the political climate has become so contentious, it’s critical that people have an opportunity to come together for a common goal. Sports have a way of allowing people to move past their differences and see others as teammates, not enemies. Second, as was demonstrated so well in Mexico, hosting the World Cup is likely to increase the popularity of soccer in the U.S., creating new opportunities for talented athletes. Let the futbol fever commence!

El Dia del Padre

Like in many other countries around the world, there’s a specific day set aside each year in Mexico to recognize and show gratitude for fathers. El dia del padre is observed on the third Sunday in June every year, and in keeping with most special occasions, is generally celebrated on a grander scale than in the U.S. However, the difference is that Mexican father’s day is not just about dads. From older brothers to uncles to grandfathers and step-dads, Mexicans take the opportunity to honor all father-like figures on this day.

El Dia del Padre

It all starts in the morning when los padres wake up to an elaborate breakfast. The enormous meal is designed to include all of dad’s favorite foods, even dessert. Father’s day breakfast is topped off with sweets, like Mexican chocolates or a traditional dessert called pan dulce. Translated literally to mean “sweet bread”, pan dulce also comes with decadent fruit or chocolate toppings. Next there will be greeting cards and traditional gifts like ties for the important male family members to open and the celebration will continue throughout the day.

If the family happens to live in the vicinity of Mexico City, fathers and their children can take part in an annual race called Carrera Dia del Padre 21K Bosque de Tlalpan. Commonly called a “fun run” in America, this event presents a great way for dads and kids to spend time together outside, doing something enjoyable and healthy.

A 21K race is 13.2 miles or a half marathon, which obviously would be quite a feet for a child to complete. There are, however, many different races to choose from throughout the day, including the very popular father-son race. After the various events have been completed, families can attend the big carnival for more food, games and fun. Whether they choose to participate in a fun run or not, of course this celebration wouldn’t be complete without a dinner feast.

For the people of Mexico, this is a day to celebrate not only fathers but many other important male figures within the family. And, as is their way, a chance to bring together family and spend the day eating, laughing and having a good time.