Mexican Slang Master List

100+ words and phrases for speaking and understanding real Mexican Spanish

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It’s been more than five years since I published Top Ten Mexican Slang and its sequel Top 20 Mexican Slang. I’d never change the words on those lists, but 10 words, 20 words, heck, 100 words isn’t enough to cover the enormous amount of slang in Mexico. There are even entire books devoted to Mexican Slang — modismos mexicanos (click the photo for more info):

So here’s my Master List of the most common, useful, and hilarious words and phrases in Mexican Spanish, which goes for beyond the top 10 or 20 (or the other articles online with the same words as my first two lists and obvious rewrites of my descriptions). I sincerely hope that when you hear these words, you’ll remember my examples and laugh.

Everyday Expressions

¿Que Onda?

Along with ¿Qué pasó? and ¿Qué tal?, this is yet another way to say “What’s up?” A more informal version is ¿Que tranza?, or the vulgar ¿Que pedo?

Ondas are waves, but not waves in the ocean (which are olas), but sound or light waves. So perhaps a better translation for onda would be “vibes.”

Someone who is buena onda is cool or nice, while someone mala onda is not. Also, agarrar la onda means you understand, or get it.

Ella es buena onda — She’s cool.

¿Aggaraste la onda? — Do you get my drift?

¡Que milagro!

Literally “what a miracle!,” this is how Mexicans say “long time no see.”

¿Mande?

Mande is the Mexican way to ask “what?” when you don’t understand what someone said. It can also be used like “tell me” or “go ahead,” to encourage someone to speak, often on the telephone. Another way to say this, which is like “huh?” (not quite a real word), is pronounced ei-oo.

¿Neta?

This is a highly informal “really?” or “for real?” but it can also mean that something is the best, as in esta fiesta es la neta — this party is the best.

Another common Mexican substitute for “really?” (verdad, en serio) is ¿apoco?

¡No manches!

Instead of a question like ¿apoco?, another reaction to surprising information is to say ¡No manches! — “no way!” or “come on!” The literal translation, don’t stain, is ridiculous because it’s simply a euphemism for the vulgar no mames. Head down the list to Bad Words for other vulgar expressions in Mexican slang.

Ni modo

Literally “no method,” the pervasive expression ni modo means “it doesn’t matter,” “it can’t be helped,” or a dismissive “whatever.”

¡Órale!

It can be used for encouragement, like “go for it!” or “right on!” Or it can be used to agree: “let’s do it!” or “let’s go!” Or it can express excitement, like “wow” or “my goodness!,” similar to its second cousin híjole.

Ahorita

Ahora means now. The -ita or -ito (for feminine or masculine nouns) stem is a diminutive, used to show that something is small or cute. So literally ahorita means “little now.”

Mexicans might tell you that ahorita means “right now,” but really it means soon or eventually. If you ask a Mexican to do something and they reply with ahorita, then it could happen in five minutes, five hours, or never.

¿Puedes ayudarme con mi tarea? Ahorita. — Can you help me with my homework? Soon.

¿Ya nos vamos? Ahorita. — Let’s go now? Soon.

Luego luego

While luego means later, luego luego, unlike ahorita, actually does mean right now.

¡Aguas!

We all know that agua is water. But in slang aguas means “careful” or “look out!”

Aguas con los perros. — Careful with those dogs.

dogs-on-roof

I was told that this expression comes from when a cleaning lady pours out a bucket of water onto the sidewalk, she warns passersby by yelling ¡Aguas!

Pinche

Not quite vulgar, pinche translates to many words in English, damn for example, but only when used to describe something or someone.

¡Pinche coche! – damn car

Pinche Juan – goddamn Juan (Also a song by Café Tacuba, good Mexican band for learning Mexican slang.)

Chido

Chido means “cool,” usually objects and situations instead of people, for whom it’s more common to say buena onda (see above). Another word for cool is padre (see Family below).

Cámara

No, not the Nikkon hanging around your neck, although it’s also the word for a camera, and the tube inside a tire too. A general translation is chamber. But as an expression, cámara means “I agree” or “it’s a deal.” A stronger way to say this is with conste.

No Hay Bronca

This one has a special place in my heart — I named my blog after it. It means “no problem,” and is an alternative to the vulgar No hay pedo. (Look for pedo under Drinking below.)

Words for People

Wey

Wey was #1 on my list of Top Ten Mexican Slang, and I still stand by it. The “correct” spelling (of this “incorrect” word) is güey, which is derived from the word buey for an ox.

Ask middle-aged Mexicans, and they’ll tell you that wey didn’t exist when they were kids — at least, not like it does now. Once in the proper circles you’ll hear wey between every other word, like how teenage American girls use “like.”

¡Simón wey, mira wey, chupamos veinte caguamas wey, no mames wey, estábamos bien pedos wey!

Wey (or güey) means “dude,” and if you haven’t already heard something like the example above, I hope that when you do you’ll recall this example and laugh. (Simón is a slang substitute for , yes.)

When used angrily, however, wey means something like dumbass or idiot.

In the north of Mexico, people use vato, which is borderline vulgar. Cabrón, clearly on the vulgar side, can also be used in a friendly way with the right people. Carnal is used for a very close friend, often someone’s brother. And speaking of brothers, cuate (fraternal twin) is also used for a close friend.

Chavo/chava

In English we say “kids,” and in Mexico there are many slang words for youngsters. Chavo is perhaps the most common, but others are chamaco and morro. (Remember, end words like this with an -a instead of an -o for females, i.e. chava, chamaca, morra.)

Of course, like “chick” in English, these can be used for teenagers and up, as always depending on the situation. I have a friend who calls his girlfriend his morra.

Peques — short for pequeños — is used for little kids only. An escuincle is a spoiled brat, but it could apply to kids in general.

Ruco

A ruco is an old person, and the word can be used as a noun or an adjective. A chavoruco, therefore, is an old guy who acts (or tries to act) young.

A related word, rabo verde (literally “green tail” — green in the sense of not ripe), is an old guy who dates young women, or chases young tail.

Naco

Nacos are low-class folks, not necessarily because of their economic situation, but more because of attitude and behavior. The American English equivalent would be redneck (more so than hick), and although nacos and rednecks actually have a lot in common, they would probably hate each other.

Fresa

Literally strawberry, a fresa is a picky, stuck-up person. For a woman it could translate as high maintenance. This can apply to things other than people as well; for example cheesy, lightweight rock is musica fresona, although the usual word for cheesy is cursi.

Another way to say picky, especially for food, is especial — special.

Chicano

These are Mexicans living in the United States, or Mexican-Americans. The illegal ones are mojados, which means “wet,” a reference to the unfortunate expression “wetback.”

Malinchista

A Mexican who doesn’t want to be Mexican, but loves to talk about his trip to the U.S. or Europe, is a malinchista. This comes from Malinche, Hernan Cortés’ indigenous translator (and lover) during the conquest of Mexico, widely regarded as a traitor. So a malinchista is someone who symbolically betrays Mexico.

Chilango

These are people from Mexico City, which incidentally is called D.F. (pronounced “deh-EFF-ei” in Spanish). There’s some debate about whether chilangos are people born there or who moved there later, but for our purpose it’s any of the 9 million residents of this massive metropolis.

Cholo

Cholos are Mexican hip-hop kids — big pants, big chains, and a whole other world of slang. I’m sure Mexican rappers Cartel de Santa would proudly call themselves cholos.

Changoleon

I’m not sure how common changoleon is, but I’ve heard it as a slightly disparaging word for  a hippie, although it’s also used for dirty people in general. Think about the translation: a monkey-lion. (Chango is the Mexican word for monkey, which is usually mono.)

Chairo

Chairos are the left-leaning, save-the-world types who believe in a socialist utopia. I suppose a loose translation to English could be social justice warrior. Yes, it’s an insult to call someone a chairo.

Derechairo

The corresponding insult for people on the right is derechairo. Dere-, as in derecha — get it? Another word is mocho, especially for the overly religious. ¡Pinche mochos y chairos se odian!

Cafre

Cafres are terrible drivers, who often drive a carcacha, a beat-up car. Another word is cacharro, but this may apply to anything busted, not only cars.

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Ñoño

Ñoños are nerds, and as an adjective it means “nerdy.” Apparently in Spain ñoño means “cheesy,” though in Mexico cheesy is cursi.

Metiche

A busybody — someone who pokes their nose into everyone’s business — is a metiche. If the person is a gossip, then he or she is chismoso, as chisme is gossip (the noun).

Mandilón

This is a guy whose wife or girlfriend is always bossing him around. It’s not vulgar, even if the English equivalent certainly is: pussy-whipped.

Tocayo

Not an exclusively Mexican word, but interesting because there’s no equivalent in English, a tocayo is someone with the same name as you. You can say somos tocayos or just call the person with the same name as you tocayo, like a nickname (apodo).

Words for Describing People

Unlike folks north of the border, Mexicans can be quite direct when describing people, with words and nicknames like gordito (fat), flaco (thin), and moreno (dark skinned). Though to describe a dark-skinned woman, for example, it is nicer to add the diminutive –ita, as in morenita.

Güera

If you’re a light-skinned woman with blonde or even light brown hair, you’ll for sure be called a güera in Mexico, which means — surprise — a light-skinned woman with blonde or light hair. For men the word is güero, and in both cases there are two little dots above the “u.”

Codo

Codo means elbow, but in Mexican slang it means “stingy,” as in a cheap or stingy person. People who are codo doesn’t want to flex their elbows by pulling out money and putting it on the table. The non-slang word for this is tacaño.

No seas codo  – Don’t be cheap.

More expressions use codo, like hablar por los codos, which means talk too much, or romperse los codos, which means work too hard.

Buena

Women with a nice body are buena (hot), bien buena, or the even-more emphatic buenota.

Estas bien buena güera. — You are hot (have a nice body), white lady.

Be careful with these, as obviously they can be taken the wrong way. For example, not many women would enjoy being called a gordibuena — a hot fat chick.

Another way to say a person is hot is chula, which can also mean “good” in a general sense.

Cochino

A pig, in the general, metaphorical sense of the word — dirty, disgusting or rude, whatever applies. It can also be used like an adjective: Tu casa está cochina — your house is dirty. To say it in a nicer way, use cochinito.

Pelón, etc.

A common nickname, used as a noun, this refers to a bald guy, especially those who shave their head. Pelo is hair, so pelón means…well there’s some irony at work here.

This brings us to another topic: the –ón  and –ona suffixes, which you can add to all kinds of adjectives, such as:

Nalgas: butt — nalgona: girl with a big butt. (And slapping someone on the butt is a nalgada)

So, you can add -ón or -ona to any body part to describe someone who has a prominent one. For example:

Nariz: nose — narizón: guy with a big nose

Cejas: eyebrows — cejón: guy with bushy eyebrows

Frente: forehead — frentona: girl with a big forehead

Bigote: mustache — bigotona: girl with a mustache

Culo: ass (vulgar) — culona: girl with a big ass, often complimentary (but still vulgar)

Cebolla: onion — cebollón: what my wife calls me when I eat too many onions

You also can do this with jobs: -ero or -era makes a job title.

Obra: work project — obrero: worker

Palomita: popcorn — palomero: popcorn seller, who walks the streets with his cart.

Culo: ass — culero: literally “ass seller,” but actually more like asshole.

Jeta

Finally, a special mention for jeta, which doesn’t have a direct English translation. (These are often the most interesting words.) A jeta is a dirty look, a sour expression on your face. Maybe you’ve heard this newly-minted English expression: resting bitch-face. That’s a jeta. So a woman who often has a jeta is a jetona.

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Words for Family Members

Jefe/Jefa

Your father is your boss: mi jefe, and your mother too: mi jefa.

Vieja

Your wife or girlfriend is your old lady: mi vieja. Sure, it’s not respectful, but it is common. Old ladies, on the other hand, are usually called viejitas, with the diminutive softening the blow.

Esta vieja — “this old lady,” could refer to any female, usually with a negative connotation. And viejo, old man, can be used among friends like “man” (if you get sick of using wey, cabrón or carnal, of course.)

Mijo

Mothers talking about their sons use this combination of the two words mi hijo — my son.

Padre

Padre (father) means “cool” or “good,” not for people but things or situations. Está padre — it’s cool, great. Está padrísimo — it’s awesome.

In Mexican Slang, madre (mother) is much more common than padre, although unlike padre, it’s highly vulgar. Which brings us to…

Bad Words

Bad language, groserias in Spanish, make up some of the most diverse, prevalent and versatile types of slang in any language. Whole books and websites are devoted to bad language in Spanish — English too. It can make for a lifetime of study, and if you want to get into it, a great website to check out is run by my friend Rodney: “¡Qué boquita!” No seas pelangoche.

In the interest of your Mexican slang education, I’ve included five of the most versatile bad words, which can be twisted into many meanings. They are, in their basest form: madre, mamar, huevos, cabrón, and chingar — of course with a few bonus ones mixed in.

Madre

As I wrote above, in Mexican Slang padre isn’t a bad word, but madre certainly is. Why? Well, as an anonymous commenter wrote on my article Top Ten Mexican Slang, mention mom and the fight is on.

Here are some ways to use madre:

Que pedo con esta madre — What the fuck is wrong with this fucking thing — you can use madre to refer to pretty much anything.

Me vale madres — I don’t give a fuck.

Ni madres — No fucking way.

A toda madre: This means “awesome,” or about yourself it means you’re feeling great, ready for action, as in Estoy a toda madre.

Que poca madre: Something bad, wrong, not pleasing for sure. ¿Reprobaste tu clase? Que poca madre. — You failed your class? That sucks.

Desmadre: A mess, or a fucked-up situation, is a desmadre.

Partir la madre: This means “kick your ass,” as in te voy a partir la madre. A simple verb for this is madrear. And once you get your ass kicked, you will be covered with madrazos, or bruises, also known as putazos.

For example: Voy a madrear todos estos pinches blogueros que copian el contenido de mis artículos.

Hasta la madre: To be sick of something. Ya yo estoy hasta la madre, de que me pongan sombrero (The first line from Frijolero by Molotov, a great song full of Mexican slang).

Mamar

Etymologically speaking, mamar is related to mamá (mom). But there’s no good translation for mamar to English, except possibly “suckle” or “breastfeed.”

As you can imagine, this is fertile ground for slang. Mamar the verb, therefore, means “to give a blowjob,” and the noun “blowjob” is mamada. But mamada or mamadas can also mean “bullshit,” AKA pendejadas (from pendejo, asshole), chingadazos, and many more, including the non-vulgar tonterías.

If a guy is mamado (an adjective this time), however, it means he is muscular — implying he breastfed a lot and got big.

Remember fresa above? Another word for picky, stuck-up people is mamón, or mamona for women.

Finally, as mentioned above, the extremely common no manches (Come on! No way!) is actually a euphemism for no mames, literally “don’t suck me off.” Remember to conjugate your verbs — if you’re talking to a group of guys (don’t use it with women), say no mamen.

Cabrón

This word is as Mexican as it gets. When I travel in Central America, in places like Guatemala or Honduras, and I tell people that I live in Mexico, they often say ¡Ah, cabrón! That’s how Mexican this word is, that other Latinos think of it right away when they think about Mexicans.

It comes from cabra, goat, but if used as an insult it translates best to “bastard,” though not in the sense of someone with unmarried parents. But it can also be said to a friend — a male friend, of course. Like bastard, cabrón isn’t appropriate for the dinner table.

Cabrón can be used in other ways, especially for something difficult — Está carbon. If you say that about a person, it means he’s tough.

If you’re angry, you’re encabronado/a. It can be used like a verb: Me encabrona (or me encabrita) este wey — this guy pisses me off.

Está cabrón has a euphemism for use in mixed company: está cañon.

Chingar

Much like English’s beloved f-word, Chingar has a wide range of uses, from describing something positively: está chingón (it’s fucking awesome), to negatively: está de la chingada (it’s fucked up).

If there’s a lot of something, traffic for example, you can say hay un chingo de…, for example hay un chingo de tráfico. The non-vulgar way to say this is un montón de… or un buen de…

In general, you can utilize chingar to express the foulest, rudest, and most aggressive sentiments, such as chinga tu madre (fuck your mother, or simply fuck you) or vete a la chingada (go fuck yourself).

This is a truly Mexican word, and to learn the origins and deep thoughts behind it read The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. (Click the books for info.)

For everyday uses, check out the Chingonario:

Chingar as a verb typically means “fuck up,” rather than have sex. Another good one for fuck up is joder. Estoy jodido — I’m fucked.

For actual sex, expressed vulgarly, use coger, which in other Spanish-speaking countries means “grab” or “hold.” Use it like that in Mexico, and people will laugh like crazy.

¡Chale!

Here’s a bonus word, similar to chingar: ¡chale! is like “shit!” or “fuck!”, used when something bad happens.

Huevos

We know that huevos are eggs, but all over the Spanish-speaking world, huevos are also balls (testicles).

In Mexican slang, huevos can be used much more widely. When my Spanish was still at a pretty basic level I had a student who said huevos días to me — not a very nice thing to say.

One of my favorites, ¡A huevo! means “of course!” or “hell yeah” — very useful. Another variation is tengo hueva, which means you are feeling lazy, and a lazy person is a huevón. If you say me da hueva, it means something bores you. Que hueva — how boring.

Drinking

Yes, bad words and drinking go hand and hand, and likewise words for alcohol and drinking are a source of so much great slang. Think about English: booze, a brew, getting wasted, hammered, fucked up…

Chela

Chelas are beers, also known as cheves. The word may come from micheladas, a big cup of beer mixed with tomato juice, lime, hot sauce — there’s even a place in Mexico City that puts shrimp and slices of mango in their micheladas. Perhaps an acquired taste.

Caguamas

The best deal for beer drinkers in Mexico are caguamas, big returnable 40-ounce-ish bottles. As a commenter pointed out to me, technically the biggest one is a caguamón, although this is a marketing term I’ve never heard spoken. A caguama is a type of sea turtle, by the way.

Another useful container for beer is a latón (big can), a tall boy in English.

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Pomo

A pomo is a bottle of liquor. I’ve even heard the big one — what we call a half gallon in the U.S. — called an elephant foot: pata de elefante. I like that.

Pisto

This is the vulgar way to say booze, and the verb pistear is the vulgar way to say drink (the verb). You can also say chupar, “suck,” as in vamos a chupar — let’s drink/get drunk.

Mala copa

A Mala copa is a bad drunk, you know — one who loses control, fights and cries. No seas un mala copa.

Crudo

Literally “raw,” crudo means “hungover,” as in estoy crudo or tengo cruda (I have a hangover).

Cantina, antro

A cantina is a bar, and an antro is a nightclub. A rodeo is a kind of nightclub that specializes in banda music — the cowboy hat-wearing groups with loud drums and big horn sections.

Pedo

I could have put pedo under bad words, as it’s versatile, common and oh-so vulgar. Literally a pedo is a fart, but most often it means “drunk.”

Estoy pedo — I’m drunk.

Therefore un pedote is a boozer, a big drinker, although it could also mean “a big fart.”

The noun peda is a drinking party or binge, also known as a borrachera or a chupe. The party itself, fiesta, could be called a pachanga or parranda.

Pedo also means “problem,” as in ni pedo or no hay pedo, the vulgar substitute for no hay bronca, “no problem.” ¿Cual es tu pinche pedo? — “What’s your fucking problem?” A pedero is a person who causes problems.

Finally, you can use ¿Que pedo? instead of ¿Que onda? to say “what the fuck is up?” (in a friendly way), or with an angry tone of voice, “What the fuck?” The euphemism for these is pex, as in ¿Que pex? or ni pex.

Miscellaneous Useful Mexican Slang

This Mexican Slang Master List is getting a to be a little long, so long that I think I might have to write a sequel with words for crime and punishment, sports, drugs, food, and especially sex. But for now, I’ll leave you with a few good ones, necessary ones, which for sure belong on a comprehensive list of the most important slang from Mexico.

Rola

Songs are rolas, an alternative to the regular Spanish word, canción.

La banda

La banda might be the band, but it could also be a group of friends.

Chamba

A job, often a difficult or shitty job. You can say, Tengo que regresar a mi chamba or ask, ¿Que chamba tienes? The verb, chambear, means work, and without pride or enthusiasm. Tengo que chambear mañana. 

Changarro

It means a small business, a little store or small restaurant. So, does changarro have anything do with chango, the Mexican word for monkey?

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Chafa

Chafa describes something cheap or low quality. Este coche es chafa.

Varos

Varos (sometimes spelled and always pronounced baros — remember there’s no “v” sound in Spanish) means money, but not in the general sense like lana (wool, money) or plata (silver, money), but in the numerical sense (pesos), like bucks. Esta vale cien varos — It’s worth one hundred pesos.

Refresco

A refresco is a soda, like a Coke. But if a policeman asks you for a refresco, he’s asking for a bribe.

Paro

A favor is a paro, as in Hazme un paro — Do me a favor.

Chiste

A chiste is a joke (una broma), and something funny is chistoso. Chiste can also mean the trick, or the way to do something, as in el chiste es hacerlo así — the trick is to do it like this.

Albur

An albur is a vulgar pun. This fascinating aspect of Mexican culture deserves a whole other article. It can also be used as a verb, alburear.

Gaucho

This is substitute for feo, ugly, though both words are used in a much wider sense than for physical ugliness. For example: Hueles feo — you smell bad (not ugly).

Jalada

Jalada means overdone, or ridiculous, as in action movies in which the hero is shot at by 100 foes, but not one bullet hits him.

Chorro

Literally “spill,” it means diarrhea, as in tengo chorro.

Vocho

Remember the cafres driving their carcahas? Well, the carcacha might be a vocho (pronounced and sometimes spelled bocho), the nickname for Volkswagen Beetles, which are everywhere in Mexico.

Chamarra

In Mexico, don’t call your jacket a chaqueta, because that’s the word for jerking off. Use chamarra instead.

Chanclas

These are sandals, AKA huaraches, an old indigenous word that is also a kind of food (delicious). If you walk around in public with chanclas, you might be called chancludo.

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D.F.

Meaning Federal District, and pronounced “deh-EFF-ei,” this is how most people refer to Mexico City. It may be called simply México, but almost never La Ciudad de México, except on documents or plane tickets, although the government is currently trying to change this. By the way, people from D.F. are chilangos.

Zócalo

An essential word for travel, the zócalo is the main plaza or the central square of a city, otherwise known as the parque central.

Colonia

This means neighborhood, not the English cognate “colony.” Residents may be called vecinos (which usually means “neighbor”) or colonos.

Camión

A camión is a bus, whereas in other parts of Latin America it’s a truck. I remember telling people in Guatemala that I arrived by camión, and they looked at me crazy until I figured it out and explained myself. The official word for a bus in Mexico is autobús, not plain bus, unlike Spain and elsewhere.

Tope

Finally, we’ll end this list with a word that’s not just slang, but a big part of any Mexican experience, especially if you drive. Speedbumps are everywhere, often unmarked and totally hidden in the dark night. Aguas when you drive over them, because hitting them hard makes everyone in the backseat bounce up and slam their heads into the roof of the car, or worse, gives you a flat tire.

Speedbumps are topes, and only in Mexico. In other parts of Latin America and some parts of Mexico they are tumolos, reductores — which other words?

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Part 2 is coming soon and will include Mexican slang for food, sports, sex, drugs — all that fun stuff. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments, corrections and complaints.

My Guidebook to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, Mexico

1 chichen itza

The first edition of my Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary was published in 2013, and I updated it in Februrary 2016, adding new restaurants, better hotels, and details on many more nearby places to visit.

Though the guide is designed for an independent traveler to hit the major highlights of the region in five days (or fewer), it contains enough info for three weeks or more, and includes insider tips for saving money, eating authentic food, and traveling farther into Mexico on your own.

This guidebook is often one of Amazon’s top three bestselling books for Cancun, and sometimes even for all of Mexico. It’s also one of the top sellers for Unanchor, an excellent independent publisher specializing in travel itineraries.

Click the book to view on Amazon.com:

You can purchase the Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary from Amazon.com, which provides a free reader for those of you without a Kindle, or directly from the publisher Unanchor.com, where it can be accessed online and downloaded as a .pdf. Here’s the beginning of the description with the link to Unanchor.com:

Most famous for Cancun, the Mayan Riviera is Mexico’s tourist fantasyland, a jungle coastline of white-sand beaches, ancient Mayan ruins, laid-back colonial towns, and clear-water cenotes… More Details

For a free excerpt from the book, please email me at nohaybroncablog (at) gmail.com or leave your email address in a comment below.

xpu ha

The Day of the Dead in Mexico: What’s it all about?

In Mexico, a country full of color, tradition and flavor, the Day of the Dead stands out as especially colorful, traditional and flavorful. Rooted in Pre-Hispanic practice and caught up in the trick-or-treat influence of Halloween, the holiday is a chance to honor deceased relatives with an altar in the home, dress up as an elegant skeleton, and sample the best of Mexico’s artesanal candy.

The Day of the Dead takes place on November 2, but it’s celebrated several days or even several weeks before, especially when there’s a long weekend like this year. While it’s one of the most public holidays in Mexico, in many ways it’s also the most personal. Besides costumes and outdoor events (more on those below), perhaps the most interesting part of the holiday is that people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried.

They clean it up, adorn it with flowers, and even may spend the night there, eating, drinking, playing music, and remembering their loved ones.

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“We don’t cry. It’s a celebration,” says Pedro, a guitarist and music teacher. His family decorates their relatives’ graves with candles, photographs, and orange flowers. They sing songs, tell stories, and inform their dead relatives of all that’s new in their lives.

The Ofrenda (Altar)

Another more personal manifestation of the Day of the Dead is an altar that families set up in their homes. Called an ofrenda, in it they place photographs of deceased relatives and some of their favorite foods, including cigarettes and alcohol if the person liked them. It’s as if the relative will come back for a visit and the family wants them to feel welcome again.

Not only families do this, but places all over Mexico. Here’s an ofrenda from the university where I work:

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Day of the Dead Parade

In Spectre, the most recent James Bond movie from 2015, they give a highly stylized view of the Day of the Dead. In the first scenes of the movie, you see a big parade with lots of noise and action and people running around in colorful dresses and skull makeup. Apparently the Mexican government spent a huge amount of money to get the scene included in the movie, and the skeleton character even made it onto the cover:

In an example of life following art (or art following art?), the first Day of the Dead parade, called the Paseo de las Animas, went down the same city streets on Saturday, October 29 in Mexico City. Along with floats of skulls and big colorful monsters called alebrijes, it included 1,000 actors in skeleton costumes and makeup. (The skeleton, called catrina for women and catrin for men, is the iconic figure wearing a suit or a flowing gown).

A big catrin figure in Toluca, State of Mexico:

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Feria del Alfeñique in Toluca

The Mexico City parade might be new, but displays, events and markets selling Day of the Dead specialities occur all over the country leading up to the holiday.

The Feria del Alfeñique in Toluca, the central Mexican city where I live, is a great place to sample all the flavors and soak up the atmosphere. (Alfeñique is a type of sugar candy).

In the Portales, an outdoor mall of arches in the center of town, hundreds of vendors sell all kinds of candies, decorations, and skeleton figures for the Day of the Dead, either to try right there or put in your family altar.

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No altar would be complete without calaveritas, the colorful candy skulls. They represent the dead relative, whose name you can have drawn on the forehead in sugar.

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You can get candied everything, including all kinds of vegetables and fruit, like limes, pumpkin, and nopales (cactus leaves). Here are some tempting bananas:

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I especially enjoy the oficios, little skeletons doing their various jobs.

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Outside the fair, people in elaborate costumes accept money to pose with you for photographs.

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So if you want to experience the Day of the Dead but without the enormous crowds of a parade or the late night in a cemetery, come to Toluca for the Feria del Alfeñique. It’s an easy bus ride from the Observatorio metro stop/bus station in the west of Mexico City. Once you get to the Toluca bus station, take a “safe taxi” (taxi seguro) to centro, downtown.

And look out for this guy:

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