These Dogs Play a Very Special Role on the Day of the Dead
How the spirited Xoloitzcuintli breed shines on Día de los Muertos.
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Each year on the first two days of November, the Mexican people and their diaspora celebrate the colorful Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It’s a time devoted to honoring the spirits of departed family members through altars, food, and other offerings — as the deceased make their four-year-long journey through nine arduous levels in Mictlán (or, the Aztec’s underworld) towards a final resting place.
In previous generations, Xoloitzcuintli, also referred to as Mexican Hairless Dogs, were often also central to Día de los Muertos narratives. (In case you’re curious, Xoloitzcuintli is pronounced “show-low-eats-QUEENT-lee,” according to the American Kennel Club.) Xolos, as they’re more casually known, are thought to guard humans both in their mortal existence and in the afterlife, which is why they were often buried next to their humans and likewise celebrated during Día de los Muertos festivities.
According to beliefs, an Aztec god named Xolotl specifically created this dog from the same bone of life as their humans, to guide the latter’s souls through the perilous Mictlán. Among the Xolo’s key responsibilities: helping pet parents cross the impossible Apanohuacalhuia River. Here, Xolos would wait at the shore in anticipation of their arrival.
In some cases, the dogs were sadly sacrificed to join their humans in burial. (Archeologists have spotted their bones in Mayan tombs.) But in other cases, archaeologists have found ceramic versions of the dogs symbolically buried with people, to similarly usher them through the afterlife. During Día de los Muertos, it isn’t uncommon to see family members create an altar (or ofrenda) that includes photos, candles, toys, and treats to honor a fallen pet.
But their appeal on this mortal coil has been well documented, too. Because they are typically hairless (save a turf of hair atop their heads), Xolos radiated so much warmth that Aztecs believed they possessed the ability to heal. So humans — believing the dogs can cure asthma, toothaches, insomnia, and rheumatism — tended to keep them close like living, breathing hot-water bottles. (And really, who doesn’t want to snuggle with their pup?)
The name Xoloitzcuintli is a mix of words: “Xolotl,” a reference to the aforementioned god of lightning and death, and “itzcuintli,” the Aztec word for dog. In the Nahuatl language, it’s purported that “Xolo” means “monster — a reference to the dogs’ darker appearances. At one point in history, they were mistaken for Chupacabras. So it’s no surprise that Reader’s Digest once anointed Xolos the world’s ugliest dog. Many, however, would passionately disagree with that assessment.
In modern times, Xolo enthusiasts have showered much love on the breed. They are adorably slim dogs, which can vary in height from 10 inches to 23 inches, with a life expectancy of 13-18 years. Artist Frida Kahlo included her Xolos, namely her favorite pup Señor Xototl, in her paintings. She also posed next to her Xolos in artwork drawn by her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera. (The latter even opened the first Xolo breeding kennel in 1925.) Decades later, Xolo fans demonstrated renewed interest in the breed via the Xolo Expedition of 1954, during which they found just 10 remaining Xolos across Mexico and kicked off a campaign to propagate them.
More recently, Pixar’s 2017 film Coco, featured an adorable Xolo named Dante who never left the side of his human, Miguel, as he traversed the world of the undead. (These days, some dog lovers even participate in Día de los Muertos events with their Xolos in tow, painting them and dressing them in Aztec garb.) Meanwhile, Tijuana went so far as to name a soccer club after the dog. They’ve become such a status-symbol in the country that, by 2017, purebreds went for up to $5,000 in Mexico City. To that end, they are recognized by the American Kennel Club and now appear in the coveted Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
Trends aside, Xolos are legitimately quite extraordinary. As a breed, they date back 3,000 years, with one archeological dig seemingly backing up the idea that they existed 5,500 years ago. (A different study purports that the breed hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries.) Even Christopher Columbus commented on the Aztec’s love of this breed. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in numerous cultures, Xolo’s became a food source to Spanish conquistadors, which led to their diminishing population.
Today, the Xolo has been Mexico’s national dog, and in 2020 was named a symbol of Mexico City. Recent reports estimate that there are less than 30,000 Xolos across the globe, making them just as exceptional to their owners as they were at the dawn of the 20th century. “You really have to be thinking [with Xolos] all the time,” Kay Lawson, a Xolo breeder and former president of the Xoloitzcuintli Club of America, told National Geographic. “They open doors, they open crates. This is a primitive dog. They’re extremely intelligent.”
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Nisha Gopalan has been a writer/editor for The New York Times, New York magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and NYLON magazines. She currently resides in Los Angeles.