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October 15, 2015

Take a Mexican 'staycation' for Día de los Muertos

What to do, see, eat around Philadelphia

Entertainment Holidays
Penn Day of the Dead Simon Bolivar/Mexican Cultural Center

Left, a Day of the Dead altar dedicated to Octavio Paz, Mexican writer and Nobel Prize winner. Right, decorations at Penn Museum's Day of the Dead celebration.

You might know Oct. 31 as Halloween, but in Mexico it kicks off the wacky, mythical Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration. It’s a holiday for frolicking and revelry to celebrate those who have passed on and includes parties at gravesites, elaborate altar decorating, dancing, feasting and skull-shaped candies.

If you can’t travel to Mexico, you can always have an immersive Mexican experience at home by taking a "staycation." Try out some of the activities below with the whole family to learn more about Mexican culture and get the full holiday experience. 

Head to the Museum

Kick off your cultural exploration with an all-out Day of the Dead celebration at your choice of three iconic Philly museums. On Halloween from noon to 4 p.m. (you’ll get home in time for trick-or-treating), the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology hosts its annual Día de los Muertos extravaganza, complete with altar making, Mexican puppetry, dance performances and live music. The event is held in cooperation with Philadelphia’s Mexican Cultural Center.

Or try the notoriously spooky Mütter Museum, home of the largest collection of books bound in human skin and an exhibit on Albert Einstein’s brain. Every day is like a day for the dead at the Mütter, so their Halloween/Dia de los Muertos festivities will be a real treat.

Not to be outdone, the Philadelphia Museum of Art hosts performances and activities honoring Mexican Day of the Dead Nov. 1, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. All festivities are free with museum admission.

  • Did You Know? 
  • Marigolds symbolize Day of the Dead. It’s believed their pungent scent and sunny color guide the way for spirits to return to feast on their favorite foods and visit loved ones. 

Enjoy an Authentic Meal

The Philly region is getting richer with more choices for Mexican fare, so this is the month to seek it out and encourage the kids to go beyond tortilla chips. No-frills, authentic taco king El Limon from Conshohocken now boasts new spots in Malvern, Ardmore and Bryn Mawr. Staying in the city? Don't miss this guide to South Philly taco spots

Take a Day Trip

As the mushroom capital of the world, Kennett Square is home to a large community of Mexican workers who have enlivened the culture of this sleepy town. There’s an annual Mexican festival around Cinco de Mayo, but any time of year you can enjoy renowned culinary favorites in the neighborhood.

  • Prep The Kids for a Cross-Cultural Experience 
  • Learn more about Day of the Dead by checking out these fun picture books with younger children. They put the spooky and silly into context. 
  • Avoid stereotypes by acknowledging the vast diversity of Mexico’s geography, culture and cuisine, and look for diversity cues - or stereotypes - as you “explore.” 
  • Show them how to behave when trying new foods. I’ve found if children know the expectations (e.g., don’t make a face, try a bit before refusing, talk about what you liked) this sets a positive tone for the whole experience. 
  • Reach out to friends and ask those of Mexican heritage about their favorite restaurants, celebrations, movies and recipes. If you can share a meal together, that’s really the best way to get to know a culture. World peace starts at the dinner table!

Panaderia Hermanos Lara (Lara Brothers Bakery) makes delicious tres leches cake and the popular La Michoacana shop creates Mexican ice cream and trendy popsicles. (Ask for samples before ordering flavors like corn, avocado, or cinnamon. Daring diners can top a scoop with a sprinkle of chili powder!) And La Pena's al pastor tacos (pork shoulder with pineapple roasted on a spit like shawarma) are beloved.

As a post-meal activity, visit nearby Longwood Gardens and look for native Mexican plants like the varieties of salvia described on Longwood’s blog.

What to Watch

Cap an authentic Mexican meal with a movie or show from Mexico. For the whole family, we love "Alamar," a documentary-style film featuring a father and son sailing, fishing and co-existing with Mexico’s great coral reef. 

My personal favorite, Sprout’s new series "Nina’s World" (for which I am a cultural consultant) features a Mexican-American family and many cultural vignettes. Or watch a soccer game on Spanish TV, a familiar scene at local Mexican restaurants. GOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL!!

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Guests celebrate Day of the Dead at Penn Museum. (Simon Bolivar/Mexican Cultural Center)

Learn the Language

Generally, I think Spanish is the most important second language for Americans to learn. Most library cards (see, for example, Free Library of Philadelphia, Camden County and Chester County) give you access to free online language lessons, through programs like Mango Languages. Or try these 20 games and apps for kids to learn Spanish

Move Your Feet

You might find mariachi singers and dancers on your journey, but you don’t have to wait for a performance to start dancing to a wide range of Mexican music! Putumayo’s Mexico CD offers a great starting sample of diverse genres. 

Beyond Mexico: For the Grown-Up Adventurer 

After celebrating Mexico with the whole family, adults can venture to International House Philadelphia for the New Middle East Film Festival, Oct. 26-29. Get beyond the headlines for a bird’s-eye view of life in the Middle East, from Israel to Iran to Syria and Morocco. Curated films are introduced by experts from each country and admission is free – so you can pay for your babysitter. Or you can pair each film with a meal from that country!

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