While the vibrant imagery associated with Día de Muertos — or the Day of the Dead — has seeped into mainstream culture, the significance of the Latin American ritual is often overlooked. As a holiday strongly connected to Mexico, it was only natural for Mexican street food purveyors Wahaca to host a Day of the Dead Festival drawing from its authentic roots. On the 7 November 2015, this ambitious 12-hour fiesta took place at Tobacco Dock in London, promising a celebration of the past — and those who have passed away — in an age where we are fanatically fixated on the future.
Spread across a former shopping centre, the venue provided a peculiar yet functional setting. A crowd of 4-5000 attendees moved between two floors: the bottom ‘land of dead ‘area was occupied with vendor stalls, bars and bandstands and the upper ‘land of the living’ held enclosed spaces for stages, cafés and restaurants.
A lucha libre wrestling ring was situated beneath the colonnades of the second floor, where spectators were given an overhead view. This drew large crowds for the sock-wrestling, where members of the audience were cajoled into the ring by a burly luchadore. A prodigious shrine was also located on the bottom floor in memory of the Mexican journalists killed in the field while upholding the right to freedom of speech.
Seated pop-up restaurants from Wahaca and Mexico DF were thronged with diners, serving up a range of their most popular plates. Smaller kiosks offered a concise menu for quick-fire, canteen-style service. And, for those couldn’t endure the sight of a queue, there was a cart peddling tortilla chips, guacamole and esquites, a Mexican roasted sweet corn salad.
There were dedicated margarita and mescal bars, but Sol, Pacifico and a special Day of the Dead beer from the Brixton Brewery were widely available. The festival’s schedule was replete with live music, debates and discussion throughout the day: the relevance of some of the bands was dubious, but The Savages, Zoé and The Horrors delivered rousing performances to enthusiastic masses. Mexirressy, a Mexican Morrissey tribute band, was an eccentric crowd favourite. The Saatchi Gallery hosted a special exhibition entitled Dead: A Celebration of Mortality and murals were commissioned by political street artists, Lapiztola.
Live talks were staged in partnership with English PEN and included insightful discussion from writers DBC Pierre and Martin Rowson on the topics of life and cultural responses to death. A colourful recounting of the experience of growing up in Mexico was provided by actors Camilo Lara and Diego Luego. There was also a conversation with a panel of Mexican journalists on the challenges of reporting from the frontline of the country’s savage war on drugs. Finally, Thomasina Miers, Wahaca’s founder, mused on the flavours and techniques of Mexican cuisine alongside Mexico’s most eminent chef, Enrique Olvera.
Flowers, garlands, art installations and flag bunting contributed to the lively atmosphere, but the festival’s real character was attributable to the attendees, colourfully adorned with sugar skull inspired face paint, masks and ostentatious dress. Many had put in substantial effort to look the part- this heightened the mood, lending a surreal, ethereal quality to the festivities.
The evening unfolded and some foreseeable hitches became apparent as the crowds thickened and amassed in the stage areas for the headline acts. Queues became unruly and there was an excruciating delay for drinks, food and uncertain wait times to gain entrance to the stages and discussions. Speedier bar service and better allocation of indoor space would have helped, but Wahaca has since taken to social media to request honest feedback from attendees. As such, these hiccups will hopefully be ironed over in time for its next Day of the Dead extravaganza. Wahaca has held Day of the Dead celebrations in London since 2012, but always on a considerably smaller scale. The popularity of this year’s event certifies the festival as an unmissable event in the London calendar and it will certainly return in 2016 with an even grander vision.
This year’s festival sold out, so be sure to start planning your outfit now. ∎
(Photography: Rebecca Pate for Bubbobar)