Paola Cruz and her nephew, Nicolas Sanches Gallardo, made a deal when they were kids playing in the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico.
They agreed that, when one of them died, the other would seek out a mariachi band to play their favourite Mexican songs at the funeral.
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But Nicolas warned Paola that if he died first and she didn’t honour the pact, he would travel back to the world of the living on Dia de los Muertos — Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday — just to give her the scare of her life.
Paola is now 70, her short silver hair trimmed tightly above her dark, soulful eyes. She remembers the last Day of the Dead she spent with Nicolas, her junior by only six years.
Nicolas, his wife and his children had gathered at Paola’s house in the Santa Rosa district of Oaxaca for a holiday feast: handmade tortillas, slow-cooked beans, Oaxacan stews and pan de muerto, a sugar-encrusted bread that Nicolas made specially for the occasion.
But when Nicolas declined his usual glass of mezcal, an agave-based alcohol, Paola was surprised.
“He told me his chest started to hurt that morning but said I shouldn’t worry,” she recalled. “His heart, according to him, was simply heavy with the love he felt for his wife.”
Two weeks later, Nicolas died of a heart attack at age 52. Paola made sure an eight-member mariachi band performed at his funeral in the Santa Rosa cemetery. It was 2011, 45 years after they struck their pact.
“Nico could make us cry with laughter even during the sad moments of Dia de los Muertos,” Paola remembered. “We think of him a lot during this time.”
For many in Mexico and its diaspora communities, the Day of the Dead — generally held on November 1 and 2 — is an occasion to remember and celebrate loved ones like Nicolas who have passed away.
During the holiday, families welcome the dead back from the underworld with offerings at their graves: a favourite snack, perhaps, or a much-loved drink. And cemeteries are festooned with candles and flowers in vivid shades of orange and violet.
“Occasionally, strange things happen around me during these times,” Paola said. “I feel things brush past me or hear strange noises in the house. It’s a little unnerving at first but also a comfort.”
Paola’s grandson Jonathan Velasco remarked that even the chillier autumn weather seems to evoke the underworld.
“It’s ‘frio de muerto’ or the cold of the dead,” he said from Paola’s garden, where a cool breeze shook acai berries from a drooping palm leaf. “Here in Oaxaca, the change in climate signifies it’s time to prepare for the dead to arrive.”
In anticipation of this year’s Day of the Dead, Paola and her family assembled their ofrenda, a candlelit altar she keeps in her home, right beside her dining table.
It contains mementos from the past and photographs of her deceased family members, including Nicolas, who smiles up from a snapshot where he has one arm wrapped around Paola.
“It’s a mixture of emotions every year,” Paola explained as she weaves through her garden, clipping flowers for the ofrenda with her seven-year-old great-granddaughter, Sophia. “But I think this year, people close to me who have died would be happy for me to talk about them.”
Paola’s hometown of Oaxaca is considered an epicentre for Day of the Dead festivities, with parades and live music taking place across the city.
The southern state in which it is situated — also named Oaxaca — has the largest Indigenous population in all of Mexico, and the holiday is often seen as a fusion of European and pre-Hispanic traditions.
But while residents like Paola keep local customs alive, the Day of the Dead has become an increasingly international phenomenon.
In 2022, Secretary of Tourism Miguel Torruco Marques estimated that 2.16 million tourists would arrive in Mexico for the holiday, up 95 percent over the same time in 2019. That influx was set to generate profits of 37.7 billion pesos, roughly the equivalent of $2bn.
The holiday’s popularity has surged in part due to appearances in films like the Disney-Pixar animated feature Coco and the James Bond movie Spectre.
But that spotlight has translated into fears the holiday could become too commercialised.
Since 2019, the toy company Mattel has released an annual Day of the Dead-themed Barbie doll. And in 2013, Disney was forced to drop a bid to trademark the phrase “Dia de los Muertos” amid public outcry.
Still, in Oaxaca, 71-year-old farmer Genaro Lopez is optimistic about the increase in attention.
Flashing an open smile beneath his well-groomed, grey handlebar moustache, Lopez said he feels pride in sharing his traditions with visitors.
Born and raised in Zimatlan de Alvarez, a town 30km (18 miles) south of Oaxaca’s city centre, Lopez has been growing “floras de muerte” or “flowers of the dead” for almost 40 years.
His farm is home to rows of fragrant cempasuchil — orange marigolds — and maroon cockscombs. One is said to attract souls from the dead with its scent, while the other represents the blood of Christ.
“These flowers are my life’s work. I sow the seeds in July so they’re ready for the end of October,” Lopez explained.
But his business took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, Lopez lost almost 30 percent of his usual sales. But since then, he said he has planted more and more seeds each year to keep up with the rapidly increasing demand for flowers.
“Now I can relax and enjoy watching the happiness they give families as they take bunches back to decorate their altars, local cemeteries and their homes,” Lopez said.
Another local business owner, Anthony Garcia, has likewise seen demand grow far beyond expectations.
He creates “monos de calenda”, giant puppets dressed in traditional clothing that are paraded during street parties and other cultural events. It was a craft Garcia took up as a child, learning from his grandmother, and he launched the hobby into a business six years ago.
“I’ve had to turn down more clients than ever this year due to demand,” Garcia said. He explained he recently created 28 “monos” for a Mexican restaurant chain in London. “It’s my favourite time, both professionally and personally.”
As for Paola, this year will be calmer than usual. She will visit cemeteries during the day to avoid the huge crowds at night and spend more time at home rather than participate in street parades in her area. She wants to “enjoy the peaceful moments more”, she said, unless she senses the presence of her late husband, who passed away in 2017.
“Then I’ll be ready to tell him off for leaving without me!”