Walk With Us Through a Dia De Los Muertos Market And Get Your Name On A Sugar Skull

Dia de los Muertos Tianguis: A market full of mystique, sugar skulls and nostalgia

by Graciela Lozano

In many towns and big cities in  Mexico, every year at the end of October and during the first week of November, is a special market called “Tianguis del día de Muertos”.  It is  set up in the  plazas on streets, in honor of the celebration of one of the most beautiful and meaningful traditions for all Mexicans: The Day of the Dead.

In this "tianguis" (a word that comes from the Nahuatl tianquiz (tli), which means market), the way of trading remains similar to  pre-Hispanic times - the products are found on a table or on the floor, the merchant and the buyer negotiate a price for the product, and the exchange takes place. But what do we buy here? Well, we buy a breath of life, we buy joy, fantasy, color, flavor, surprise, memories, but we also take up the tradition of our indigenous ancestors who created  this fascinating way of seeing death and celebrating with life.

From the first moment you set foot in the market, you enter  a world full of color, with smells and shapes characteristic of this unique celebration.  Food, sweets in the shape of skulls, some made of sugar, others of chocolate, candy skulls also known as “calaveras” adorned with icing on a vivid color flower shape, and candy makers  are waiting to put your name on the forehead of one of them. 

You will also find the classic handmade cardboard dolls that smell ugly.  A variety of  sizes, all the same, are articulated in their arms and legs with cotton thread, only the dresses change color.  At first glance they are all identical, but if you look closely, you will find out that each one is unique. Also, there are  the dancing skulls, skeleton puppets, and small cardboard coffins with a skeleton inside.  You pull a string, the door opens and the dead man sits down. There are little dishes with toy food for the children to make their altars of the dead, plus countless other toys:  traditional Mexican wooden toys, spinning tops, balls, yo-yos, strollers in different sizes, designs, and  shapes.

As you keep walking,  you will also find “Pan de Muerto '' or bread of the dead please  know it is not made with a dead man flour!  The Pan de Muerto is a sweet bread flavored with ”azahar “, or orange blossom, and  adorned with 4 long bones and a skull  in the center made of bread as well, bathed in butter and dusted with sugar. This is  a true delicacy that is only found during  this season at the market, bakeries and supermarkets all over the country. The “Pan de Muerto” one of the main important components in the Altar de Muertos, along with the cempasúchil flowers, the candles, and the “papel picado”of many colors. The altar must always be accompanied by the food that the loved one, to whom the altar is dedicated, liked in life.  It is expected that  on this day, the now dead, represented by a photograph, will return from beyond to live with his family that misses him so much.

And let us  do not forget about the delicious "Tejuino"; a drink made from fermented corn and spices to which lemon ice cream and a handful of salt are added -  a combination, believe it or not, that is heavenly. Another delicious drink that you can find is the "Tepache" made of pineapple shells fermented in a clay pot; these are pre-Hispanic drinks that continue to produce the same effect over time: we love it!

You can’t leave Mexico without trying at least one of the delicious, unique and much loved sweet and spicy candy “chilitos,” which is mostly a mix of sugar, tamarind and chilli. This is a candy which brings a lot of childhood memories to all Mexicans.

Walking through the market brings memories; you will also find printed verses dedicated to family members, famous people, politicians, places, or death itself.  Its virtues are highlighted and its defects are mocked, written in short texts always speaking the truth in verse and in a funny or burlesque way. Those verses are called "Literary Skulls" and they look something like this:

"Death is democratic,
Since, after all, guera,
brown, rich or poor,
All people end up being skulls. "

Jose Guadalupe Posada

And you cannot miss the beautiful Catrinas, made of different materials: cardboard, papier-mâché, ceramic, sugar, or chocolate, all elegantly dressed, haughty, slender, giving life and personality to death. The image of the Catrina was created by the Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada. In 1910, he baptized it as "the Garbancera skull", a word that comes from the chickpea sellers who, being poor, pretended to be rich, trying to hide their indigenous roots.  They pretended to be European, (Spanish or French) even though they were not able to afford to eat, and they looked like skeletons, but always well-dressed.  Since its author, Posadas, was a political cartoonist, the intention was to portray the misery, the political errors, and the hypocrisy of a society. The Mexican painter Diego Rivera gave them their current look with a hat and feather stole.  It is captured in his murals, and over the years it became the cultural representation of death for Mexicans.

When it is time to leave the Tianguis de Muertos, no one leaves sad or empty-handed.  You leave with a happy stomach, wowed  by so many colors and flavors, but above all, the magic that brings a lot of childhood memories - of that aunt who made that delicious tepache, from the grandfather who is no longer here, but who lives in your heart, the paper doll that they bought you and 30 years later they continue to sell at the same place.  You leave loaded with magic and tradition, hoping to return the following year.

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