This article is from the October 2004 The Mexico File newsletter.
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The Ultimate Fiesta – Dia de los Muertos, Oaxaca

by Lynne Doyle 

Lynne Doyle, a frequent Mexico traveler and contributing editor of The Mexico File, hails from Maine. She is the author of our regular column, Las Joyas de Mexico.  

When you stop to think about it, what could be neater than having people you love and miss – and think you are never going to see again – come for a nice long visit once a year? Maybe even better is the idea that once you are gone, those you have left behind will make elaborate arrangements for you to return for that nice long visit, just to see how things are going. 

In any event, I have been fascinated forever by what I consider to be the very healthy relationship that Mexicans have with the whole concept of death. Unlike the American culture, which encourages spending millions in attempting to stave off aging and death, the pragmatic Mexican not only understands that death is inevitable and unavoidable, but also has an ironic, tongue-in-cheek sort of attitude towards the whole thing. Which isn’t to say that Mexicans don’t consider death respectfully, or grieve for the loved ones they lose, for they certainly do. It’s just that somehow, they know it’s coming and rather than run and hide from it, they smile and embrace it as the ultimate experience of life. 

Then there is Oaxaca, where the state motto ought to be “any excuse for a party” since its capital city boasts of observing 297 holidays a year. The combination of the Oaxaqueno enthusiasm for celebration and the annual Dia de Los Muertos festival from October 31st through November 2nd is without doubt one of the best reasons to visit Oaxaca. 

Traveling from Toluca to Puebla in October several years ago, my first visual inkling of the significance of the Day of the Dead Festival in Mexico lay in the endless fields of brilliant orange crackerjack marigolds and velvety purple cockscombs lining the highways. Then several days later, driving from Puebla to Oaxaca in the late afternoon, during that time that photographers refer to as “magic light,” the beauty of the fields spotted with women cutting flowers and burro-drawn wagons overflowing with orange and purple is impossible to describe. The holiday coincides with the tail end of the rainy season in Mexico and the lush, breathtaking countryside was framed by puffy scudding clouds running through the intense blue sky. As if in exclamation, the volcano Popocatapetl popped through the clouds occasionally, flaunting his fresh snow.  

The first time I experienced Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, we arrived on the 28th of October with some trepidation, as in the scramble for a place to stay, we had booked rooms in a hotel none of us were familiar with. This time, however, we lucked out. Hotel Cazomalli on Calle el Salto is a newer hotel, built by its architect owner in the barrio of Jalatlaco (nine blocks east of Santa Domingo) and run by Senor Francisco Perez Perez, his wife Marina Flores and their three gorgeous daughters, Yvonne, Jeanette and Pilar. Marina, who since that first visit has become a dear friend, manages the fourteen rooms in this beautiful little building with an iron hand, and she is very successful at it. It is beautifully constructed and appointed with Oaxacan folk art in every room as well as throughout the hotel and is uniformly spotless everywhere. Rooms are equipped with hairdryers, bedside lamps, and ceiling fans, and hot water with impressive pressure is consistent. Last year the hotel added a water purification system throughout.  

This family takes their motto of “your home in Oaxaca” very seriously. Hearty breakfasts of fruit, eggs and cereals are served on the roof, which sports a panoramic view of the valley of Oaxaca and the Sierra Madres framing it in every direction, as well as Marina’s very impressive collection of ceramic pots growing cacti, geranium and very lovely roses. The youngest daughter, Pilar, is studying tourism and seems to spend all her time tending to the needs of the hotel’s guests. Her English is passable and she is remarkable in her ability to anticipate one’s every need. Senor Perez, by profession a professor of architecture, in his off hours conducts tours to surrounding attractions in a large, spotless air-conditioned Suburban and while he does not speak English, he always seems to find an adequate translator in every group. His pride in and his enthusiasm for his homeland and its offerings are contagious – he enables his guests to see Oaxaca as he does. This family was particularly concerned that we all understand, enjoy and participate in all aspects of the Dia de los Muertos festivities. That first time, with my very basic understanding of the rituals and ceremonies involved, we felt that we hit the mother lode by falling over this hotel. As well as being in beautiful, comfortable surroundings, we were in the one place where no part of this holiday would remain a mystery to any of us. Since then, Marina, her little hotel and her lovely family have had no small part in bringing me back every year at the same time to share in the celebration of this great holiday. 

Our first breakfast in the sun was time for our first instructions in the ritual of the Day of the Dead. In her hilarious combination of English and Spanish, Marina explained to us that while Mexicans believe ferociously in God, they pragmatically regard Him as often too busy to be directly concerned with small everyday matters, which accounts for their dependence on individual saints and the Virgin to watch over them. Most Mexicans also rely to a certain extent on the spirits of their ancestors to intercede on their behalf when such intercession is needed. Therefore, it is of considerable importance that the souls of ancestors who visit on the Day of the Dead are welcomed with appropriate effort, expense and respect, thereby insuring their comfort and enjoyment.  It is believed that all ancestors come to visit their families; if some are not welcomed at all, or with minimal ceremony, they will then return to the spirit world sad and grieving, and will not be strong enough to intercede in times of family crisis. Conversely, if the spirits are welcomed with due pomp and circumstance, they will maintain their strength and ability to help out when needed, as well as having a fun and restorative visit with their remaining relatives on earth. While true that the significance of these observations is losing some of its impetus in more urban areas, and that outside influences are eroding some of the rituals even in rural areas, the customs are still immensely moving in their symbolism and orthodoxy.  

According to Marina, there are several ceremonies involved in welcoming the souls of loved ones home for a day of celebration to enjoy the pleasures they once knew in life. Some observations are performed at the community level, but the feast at its core is essentially a private family ritual. One of the most personal aspects of the celebration is the ofrenda built to offer returning spirits comfort upon their arrival.  These altars and the offerings upon them vary greatly in individual homes, depending on the space and affluence of the families, but there are some features that seem to be common to all of them. Each, even the smallest, is built on some sort of elevated table or shelf to be closer to where the spirits move. More elaborate altars encompass several levels, symbolizing the major steps of life – birth, marriage, procreation and death – and also to better display the offerings. All are decorated in some degree by either the flowers or petals, or both, of orange marigolds (called cempasuchil) and purple cockscombs (called mana de leon), whose color and aroma are thought to attract the souls to the altars. Some flowers are placed in vases on or near the ofrenda, often flower petals are used to create mosaics referring in some way to the lives or religious beliefs of the souls being welcomed, and frequently marigold petals are strewn from the ofrenda to the door of the house, or from the cemetery to the home, to assist the souls in finding their way. A most traditional aspect of the ofrenda is the arch built over the top of it, made of bamboo poles, palm leaves or cempasuchil and mana de leon, or some combination of them all, which symbolizes the progress of life from beginning to end. Also a central feature will be an incense holder burning copal incense, believed to enable the spirits to move more freely, and finally, some sort of small stools or chairs upon which the souls can rest after their long journeys.  

Every ofrenda features some candlelight, from humble votives to elaborately decorated candles two and three feet tall. The candles are symbols of devotion to the coming spirits and some believe that their light helps to guide the way. Something to drink, either water or perhaps the deceased person’s favorite beverage in life, is placed on every altar to refresh the spirits when they arrive.  A critical component of every ofrenda is the traditional Pan de Muerto, or sweet raised bread baked especially for the occasion – large round loaves for adult souls and small ones for angelitos, or deceased children. Also included sometimes will be favorite possessions of the deceased souls, such as hats or aprons, and sometimes a tool or kitchen utensil used during their lives.  

If the family possesses photographs of the deceased, these will be centrally placed on the altar, although this is more commonly a feature of more affluent households. Usually included in addition to traditional foods such as mole, chocolate, and tamales will be an array of fruits, nuts and candy – whatever the deceased enjoyed in life is traditionally offered again in greeting. Oftentimes, reflecting the Mexican relationship with death, ofrendas will feature decorated and monogrammed sugar skulls or amusing skeletal portraits of the deceased expressing their profession or hobbies. Most ofrendas are decorated with the popular and colorful papel picado, paper punched out with various Day of the Dead designs, as well as with traditional Mexican woven cloth, or on more elaborate altars, red or white satin.   

Probably one of the greatest things about observing Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is that the entire city gets into it. Ofrendas are not limited to private homes – everywhere you go, you find them – in stores, offices, restaurants and cyber cafes, as well as in the streets and in parks. There is a great deal of variation in the adornment used on individual altars, depending on the artistic leanings and sense of humor of the builders and the people being honored, as well as on the space available and monies to be spent. One of the most elaborate altars I have ever seen was built last year in the gallery of La Corozon de Puebla, on the Alcala in the historic district of Oaxaca. This is an extremely upscale shop I usually stay out of, but everyone was talking about their fabulous altar honoring several of Mexico’s most famous artists. Excellent black and white portraits of each artist hung on the wall at the end of the shop, while examples of their work were carefully placed on the altar below along with food and drink, candles and other symbols of the holiday. This shop had also placed a life-sized Catrina on one of their balconies, dressed in great finery waving to the people below. Also found on the streets and inside various commercial buildings are magnificent sand paintings celebrating various aspects of the holiday. Some are comical, some religious, all are amazing. Painstakingly composed of dyed sand and other natural materials, these works of art have to be seen to be believed.  

Side trips to galleries and shops also present a marvelous opportunity to look at some unique and impressive examples of Day of the Dead art, and me being me, I couldn’t try to describe this most important of Mexican holidays without touching on the vast amount of art created to commemorate it. Foremost of course is the Catrina figure, originally drawn by the turn of the century graphic artist Jose Guadelupe Posada, that has become the most abiding symbol of this celebration. These are generally ceramic or paper mache figures of varying sizes, most coming from the villages of Capula in Michoacan and Metepec in the State of Mexico, which are usually humorous in nature, although some of them are remarkable works of art. Also a traditional emblem of this festival is the Arbol de la Vida with a Day of the Dead theme. Mostly made in Metepec, about an hour west of Mexico City, but some also in Izucar de Matamoros in Puebla, just outside Ciudad Puebla, these trees are heavy on detail, elaborately sculpted and painted, and usually fairly expensive, especially as they become more well known among the tourists visiting during this time of year. Another very prevalent expression of the holiday is the skull, from the simple inexpensive sugar skulls sold in bulk in the markets to the more intricately decorated ceramic and paper mache pieces found in galleries. Calacas, or skeletal figures, are also often part of the design of candlesticks, alebrijes and tinwork. It is not uncommon to find humorous skeletons propped in the corners of commercial buildings, or hanging from the ceilings of restaurants, dressed in elaborate clothes and oftentimes accompanied by some droll witticism expressed by the figure. It’s all part of the atmosphere – even as you are surrounded by the realism of death, you end up laughing. 

While evidence of the coming festival is apparent the whole week before, the holiday officially begins, at least for tourists, on October 31st, the day that the Angelitos, or spirits of deceased children return to their families. While the actual date that adult spirits are believed to return to their homes is November 1st, most events open to tourists actually take place on the 31st, so that November 1st can be reserved for private family observations. Ever practical, Mexicans recognize that outsiders are fascinated by Day of the Dead and there are tours arranged all over the city to various surrounding village observances. Most hotels and shops have brochures describing each offering along with their prices. At Hotel Cazomalli, on this night Marina hosts a traditional Day of the Dead dinner bu candlelight consisting of mole, tamales, pan muerto and mescal in the open-air dining room on the roof. After dinner, Francisco and his sons-in-law take any guest interested first to Panteon General, the large, formal cemetery in downtown Oaxaca. Here the marble mausoleums are decorated very basically, but usually are not attended by family members. In the pavilion surrounding the gravesites, local students and artists create astounding sand paintings, and in nichos in the wall around the site, in front of each carved name plaque, is a single votive candle, glowing in the shadows. The mystery and solemnity is awe-inspiring.  

Afterwards, we head for another favorite destination -- the village of Xoxocatlan, about 20 minutes west of Cd. Oaxaca. This rural cemetery opens its doors to everyone and the villagers turn out en mass to decorate their family graves. There is music and lots of food stands, and the cemetery takes on a carnival atmosphere. The first time I went to this cemetery, I was a little put-off by all the hoopla, thinking as an anally-retentive American that it was inappropriate and disrespectful. The mood was decidedly celebratory and there was a lot of laughing, singing and loud music. Then I spotted the first of many older ladies sitting wrapped in a reboza beside an ornate grave covered in candles and flowers, looking peaceful and thoughtful, and I reassessed. Suddenly, between the children running around and the teenagers flirting, I noticed there were somber men and women of all ages keeping vigil in the candlelight, and the significance of the Mexican acceptance of death suddenly became very clear to me. Life begins and ends, it is inevitable and irreversible, and this amazing festival is a reverent celebration of people well-loved and remembered with great honor by those left behind.  

Also part of this citywide festival are the parades and celebrations of each neighborhood church. Although the observances differ according to the size and affluence of the individual church, most include an evening mass and party for parish children, as well as a parade around the neighborhood. In Barrio Jalatlaco around the corner from Hotel Cazomalli, church members put their statue of the Virgin Mary on a platform and accompanied by parishioners, a children’s choir and a brass band, carry her past every home in the parish, ending up back at the church, where mass is then observed. At nearby Catedral de Santo Domingo, the observance is larger and more lavish, but in both the music is eloquent and moving, the parade solemn and respectful.  

On November 1st, the nearby village of Etla has a huge parade and block party in their main plaza. Both children and adults come in elaborate costumes and complicated plays depicting the Conquest and other relevant themes take place in various locations around the central square. Last year was the first year I went to this celebration, and for the most part, it wasn’t worth the trouble. While it is quite a spectacle, there are thousands of people, both locals and tourists, and few places from which you can observe the festivities. The sound systems are so primitive that there is no way to stay abreast of what is going on.  There are food stands and places to get drinks, but it is just about impossible to get near them. We won’t even discuss rest room facilities. Plus all of this takes place in the dark and can be a little overwhelming if you find yourself separated from your companions. While large groups of people in Mexico have never intimidated me before (even in Mexico City), and the crowds in the cemeteries did not disturb me in the least, I would not venture to Etla again. It could be that it’s something that everyone should experience once, but my guess is that it is most rewarding for those who are tall.  

The Day of the Dead festival in Mexico is a very difficult topic to describe in words, because the experience is visual and emotional and not easily portrayed verbally. It sounds trite, I know, but the rituals of this celebration really do have to be seen and felt. In my experience, no amount of talking, and no number of photographs can begin to tell this story, or to summarize the feelings engendered by witnessing the cemetery at XoXocatlan at night, or the tribute wall at Panteon General, or even the tiny graveyard at Arrazola during the day. To look at a small ofrenda in a tiny restaurant with a blurred photograph paying tribute to a young employee killed in an automobile accident, or to listen to Marina speak lovingly of her parents, honored by ornate skulls with their names imprinted on them on her ofrenda, or to spot a moving tribute to Frida Kahlo in a storefront window, or to stand in front of a huge street ofrenda commemorating all the youth of Oaxaca dead from AIDS, is something you need to do yourself in order to have even the remotest understanding of the meaning and tradition behind this commemorative occasion. I didn’t get it when it was described to me, and when I try to explain it to others who have never been, they don’t get it either. But one thing I hope I can convey is how meaningful and moving and also enlightening an event observing the rites of Day of the Dead can be in the life of one of us – creatures from a alien culture afraid to acknowledge how much a part of life death actually is. 

Since that first trip years ago, I have taken many of my friends, relatives and students to Oaxaca for this celebration. As a matter of fact, it has become somewhat of an occasion to organize what we fondly call a “chick trip” to spend a couple of weeks internalizing the rarified atmosphere of this most Mexican of cities during this most Mexican of holidays, and I can’t think of anyone that has returned home unchanged one way or another by the experience. For sure, it changed me – both in how I acknowledge the concept and actuality of death, and in my already strong appreciation of Mexican pragmatism – and the adventure continues to transform me every time I go. This festival is surely the ultimate expression of the best that Mexican culture has to offer – in its observation, its art, and in the undeviating value of the Mexican state of mind.