As a show of strength, unity and resiliency, thousands of onlookers raised their hands, mirroring the first responders who were walking behind the first Día de los Muertos parade float to arrive at the overpacked Zócalo – a giant fist made out of multi-colored hard hats, pickaxes and rubble. As the sculpture stopped in front of the Cathedral, the first responders formed their hands into fist, and the voices of Mexico roared.
The second annual Day of the Dead celebration came at the right time for this bustling, yet damaged city. On Sept. 7, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake shook the region, razed buildings, and killed more than 200 people in the city. Since then, recovery has been slow and the citizenry a little timid.
The parade on Saturday, Oct. 28, which brought out more than 300,000 people along a lengthy route that began on Paseo de la Reforma and snaked through Centro Histórico, paid tribute to the earthquake victims, helpers and heroes – and could be a major step to help heal the city.
“It was kind of weird to do this happy celebration after this tragedy,” said Paola Schlaepfer, executive producer at Callejón Salao, which produced part of the parade. “We had been preparing for six months, then stopped after the earthquake, and thought about what we could do to pay homage to the dead, and all the people who were helping and working to rescue people.
“We wanted to acknowledge them at the beginning of the parade,” she said. “And then the parade will continue – and so will the city.”
Some areas of the city, such as Centro Histórico, are back to normal, with sidewalks filled with people motivated to sell goods, services and snacks to passersby. The Metro is still jammed with commuters who have no problem elbowing their way into and out of subway cars.
But in the Roma Norte district, which was hit particularly hard during the earthquake, severely damaged buildings are roped off, and backhoes are still clearing piles of rubble that line sidewalks.
“There are areas of the city that used to be very crowded and full of life that are not anymore,” Schlaepfer said. “But they are starting to recover very slowly. People are still a little afraid to go to the areas that were hit hard, like Roma Norte. The businesses and restaurants there are restarting but it is a slow process.”
Mercado Roma, with its orange and black tiled floor and bright angular countertops, was open and doing brisk business serving a variety of local favorites, along with Asian barbecue and Mediterranean seafood options. But a few blocks west, in the grassy square of an intersection, a church group was giving out clothes to needy people from a makeshift tent. Overlooking them was the mural of Frida, the rescue dog, that Ocean Beach artist Celeste Byers painted a few weeks ago as a symbol of hope.
In Xochimilco, a gritty neighborhood in southern Mexico City, which relies on the tourist trade of its popular trajinera boats that float lovers and partiers down its famous canals, things have been quiet since Sept. 7. After a video went viral of the boats being sloshed around the canals by waves generated from the earthquake, accompanied by screams of some tourists, business slowed considerably.
One of the long-time tourist guides said people are not visiting the canals like they used to because they are afraid. He gestured with his arms, shrugged his shoulders and rubbed his cropped white beard while shaking his head back and forth.
On that weekday afternoon in late October, the place had only a few visitors. Workers were repairing the roofs of the shops that line the canal, boat owners were repainting the colorful signs and names of their trajineras, which mostly sat idle in the water.
“The people are waiting to see what will happen,” Schlaepfer said. “But we need to reactivate those areas that were affected. We have to move on.”
It’s odd that James Bond has a role here. But the 2015 film “Spectre” started with an intense chase scene set in the Zócalo during a huge Día de los Muertos parade. That parade was just a fabrication for the movie. The long-time celebration usually included just a small parade of Catrinas.
But the movie version was what the tourists wanted to see and the city leaders decided to capitalize on that opportunity. In 2016, they staged the inaugural Día de los Muertos parade, which some Mexicans criticized as too crass and commercial, but more than 200,000 cheered it on, and so a sequel was planned.
“The parade last year was a great success. It has became a new tradition for the city,” Schlaepfer said.
This year’s version was extraordinary, with 50 foot tall skeletons and giant skulls bobbing along the route, interlaced by hundreds of dancing Catrinas and howling Aztecs. The Zócalo was overflowing with people cheering on the parade, checking out the huge Día de los Muertos alters, and taking selfies with the hundreds of Catrinas with their uniquely colorful painted faces – their take on the traditional “dapper skeleton.”
“The people of this city deserve some happiness,” Schlaepfer said. “We want to bring back smiles on the faces of the people.”
Even if on this day of the dead, those smiles were painted on.