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A Sweet Death

Rows and rows of sticky, crystallized figs, pears, and pumpkin slices sit beside skulls made from amaranth seed, dipped in chocolate, and delicately decorated with googly eyes and streaks of colored frosting. Mounds of sugar-brushed pan de muerte fill the air with the scent of orange-blossom. Everywhere you look are papel picado flags with images of dancing skeletons and tombstones. It's a world of the dead. At least, that is, the Mexican dead, who are honored each year from October 31st to November 4th during Día de los Muertos.

Like most holidays, this tradition revolves around good food. Sweet and savory offerings to deceased family members are placed at the foot of tombstones and include everything from plates of pollo con mole to shots of tequila to skulls made of sugar, all surrounded by massive piles of orange marigolds, the official Day of the Dead flower.

“It's a day to re-encounter your dead relatives,” says Armando Romero, a young dreadlocked maker of paper mâché skulls. “It's way to break with individualism, to realize that it's not just you (in the world), but the rest of your family too. The idea is to go (to the graves of the dead) and that they will be there.”

Mexico City's Jamaica market is one of the best places to be the weeks before Día de los Muertos. The smells of woodsmoke, lilies, and copal incense all fight for your nose's attention while the sheer quantity of burnt orange cempasuchils, bright purple flor de muerto, and white nubes blur your vision. This market is one of the oldest in the city and more than 60 years ago was located along the side of the Viga canal that ran through this neighborhood. Javier Escamilla's grandparents used to sell along the canal's edge and now he has a small stand (passed down from his mother) with shoe and packaging supplies in the market's household goods section.

“I grew up here in the nursery,” he says. “I've been here in the market all my life.” He tells me that part of the market was destroyed in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and locatarios (as the shop owners are called) had to fight with the government to rebuild the market on the same land, which at that point had become a very valuable piece of city property. Before the earthquake the market only sold its famous flowers and fruits and vegetables. These days, everything is for sale here. During this time of year you can get a sugar high just walking into the place. There's a mix of Dia de los Muertos and Halloween imagery but the season's traditional Mexican candies are always present.

Next, a look at the traditional sweets available for Dia de los Muertos...

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