Halloween and Día de los Muertos in Tijuana: Where faith and culture collide / by Bianca Fortis

Written by Bianca Fortis; Photos by Elaine Cromie and Griselda San Martin

The San Diego-Tijuana border is the busiest crossing in the world, making the surrounding region ripe for transculturation. The month of October proves to be evidence of this: both Halloween and Día de los Muertos are celebrated in and around Tijuana, and the two complement each other well. 

Halloween and Día de los Muertos are two unique holidays with distinctly different origins that just happen to fall within a day of one another. But the act of celebrating them both serves as proof of what those who live along the border region know: that while a physical wall may prevent migrants from crossing the border, it cannot stop the blending of two cultures.

Halloween

Electronic dance music is blasting at Papas and Beer, a nightclub popular with Americans, that’s located in the coastal resort town of Rosarito, just south of Tijuana.

The high season for local nightlife peaks over the summer, beginning with spring break and ending around Labor Day, but the crowds return for Halloween.

Eddie Estrada, a Los Angeles resident who visits Rosarito frequently, traveled down just for the event, he said, because the multi-level open-air venue is so much bigger than clubs in LA.

The beachfront club accommodates several thousand people and boasts mechanical bull riding, space for volleyball games and even hosts pool parties.

At around midnight the music pauses for the Papas and Beer costume contest; a scantily-clad Minnie Mouse, a Catrina – a female skeleton that has become a symbol for the Day of the Dead – and a banana are among the top contenders competing for cash and other prizes.

Tijuana, too, was bustling all afternoon and evening with Halloween events, including an annual Zombie 5K. The streets of el Centro were crowded with children and adults alike dressed in costume – most of which were American characters – except for a few Catrinas, and a street vendor dressed as El Chavo, a famous character depicted by the Mexican actor Chespirito.

Groups of children race up and down Calle Emiliano Zapata trick-or-treating (called “tricky tricky” here). Perhaps nowhere was the overlapping of the two holidays more apparent than here, a block better known as La Calle de las Flores, or the Street of Flowers, named for the dozen or so flower shops located along it.

The kids stop at each storefront, each of which is filled with colorful floral wreaths in preparation for el Día de los Muertos.

Día de los Muertos

In between passing out candy to groups of costumed kids, Hugo Collado, the owner of Florería Lucerito, sits outside his shop waiting for customers in need of flowers for the next day.

Collado, who has owned his shop for ten years, said the trick-or-treating is an annual occurrence. Halloween is as popular as Día de los Muertos in this border region, he said.

“It’s beautiful,” Collado said. “It’s the combination of Día de los Muertos and Halloween. What happens is something magical, something different. But something beautiful.”

During the two-day Day of the Dead celebration, families visit cemeteries with musical instruments, flowers, food and beer, a markedly different, and more cheerful, approach to remembering the deceased than in the United States. The holiday originated in southern Mexico, where visitors stay in cemeteries all night long.

Numerous local events marked the holiday too: the Katrina Fest in Rosarito offered food, music, dance performances and crafts. 

Santa Muerte

An orange light emits a glow along an otherwise dark street in Tijuana. Bathed in the light is a skeletal figure, clothed in a blood-red satin dress and lace veil, and carrying a scythe. At 10 p.m. visitors arrive with flowers, candles and even wine and beer to pay tribute to La Santa Muerte, or the Saint of Death, a female folk saint who represents death, mortality, healing and protection.

On the first day of Día de los Muertos, hundreds gathered in front of the altar to honor and pray to La Niña Blanca, or The White Girl.

Santa Muerte, a blend of indigenous Mesoamerican beliefs and Catholicism, has only a small following, but its popularity is growing throughout the world, especially in Mexico and Central America, from where it originated.

In the past, thousands of followers have attended the Tijuana ceremonies, but on this particular night, government officials had scared away many of the guests before the event even began. The choice to follow Santa Muerte is a controversial one: because of its associations with the occult and black magic, the Catholic church as well as the government condemn its practice.

Santa Muerte does have a big following in prisons, among drug-trafficking narcos and those with less than pure intentions – just a week prior to Día de los Muertos, a human arm had been left as an offering at another altar in Tijuana – but most of its practitioners, including members of the LGBT community, are members of the working class who are either disillusioned with traditional religion or who practice Santa Muerte as a complement to their other beliefs.

But like the other events this weekend, the Santa Muerte ceremony was joyful, a testament to how differently death and mortality are perceived in Mexico.