Altar in Pátzcuaro, setting for the film Coco (courtesy, Drones Michoacán)

We have all seen the movie. Coco tells the story of Miguelito and his family. They live in a picturesque Mexican town, with its tile roofs and street stalls. Every November 2nd, this shoemaker family makes an altar de muertos, or altar of the dead, full of marigold flowers, candles, food and other things, just like many of the villagers do in their homes and in the public spaces.  Miguel, in search of his past, travels to the world of the dead along with his dog Dante, where they reunite the family.

Through this film, Pixar showed the world what Día de Muertos means and how Mexicans celebrate it.

Well. Let me tell you. it is not that simple. I am Mexican, and obviously, so is my whole family. I live in the city of Morelia, Michoacán (where the famous avocado is produced). We love the music and the typical food, but we do not make shoes nor put an altar in our house for the Day of the Dead. Actually, no one of my family, friends or acquaintances puts one up.

I have only made altars in my school, because these are the ones that generally teach us about Mexican traditions, as is the Day of the Dead. The dynamics are similar in most of them. Each class must make an altar to a deceased character, involving all the elements, such as flowers and candles. We have to buy everything (or rather, our parents). My mom never liked the idea of having to buy marigold flowers—they smell pretty bad. She says the house and the car will stink of medicine for the whole week, even if we have only had them for ten minutes. But anyway, in addition to making this altar, we must explain it and give a short biography of the dead. The school organizes a contest to which the family goes to see the altars and we enjoy a delicious hot chocolate and pan de muerto or dead man’s bread.

But what we also do with my family for November 2nd is to go to the Pueblos Mágicos, or Magic Towns, in our state. A Magic Town is a locality that maintains the history and culture of the region, so that the country can preserve its cultural diversity and promote tourism. All of these towns are very beautiful, like Cholula, Tzintzuntzan and Pátzcuaro. The latter two are two of the little towns where Coco is based, and that is where we go with my family, since both of them are less than an hour away.

Pátzcuaro is a big town where you can appreciate some traditions and customs, like the Danza de los Viejitos or the Day of the Dead. I must say that it is not that similar to the film, because tourism has been transforming it (unlike Tzintzuntzan, which I think has its roots more present). However, in both places, the Day of the Dead is manifested in every corner, filling the plazas and public squares with marigold, candles and catrinas.

I remember two years ago. I went with my family and some friends to Tzintzuntzan. Orange was all over the place, and I could see whole families sitting around their graves, adorned with typical food and alcoholic beverages, even bicycles. I was very surprised that there were relatives of all ages, from babies to the elderly, many of them with the intention of spending the night watching over their dead. A 13-year-old boy gave us a tour of the place, and I was amazed at how involved he was in this tradition.

It has always been a great experience to visit these towns at this time of year, and that is what many people do for this holiday, because it is something you do not see in bigger cities. From my point of view, the celebration of the Día de Muertos is like going to a play, where some are the actors and others are the audience. The theater is known by everyone and will always be there, but it is up to everyone to decide whether to attend the play, to interact with the actors, or to be part of the show.