Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is the second most important celebration in the Oaxacan village of Teotitlan del Valle after the Preciosa Sangre de Christo (Precious Blood of Christ) honoring the patron saint of Teotitlan, which is always held the first Wednesday of July (except when the first Wednesday of July is not July 1). Things are complicated in Mexico and there are many things to celebrate. According to Janet Chavez Santiago, who knows these things, Dia de los Muertos ranks as the fourth most important celebration across Mexico after Christmas, Independence Day and the Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe in December.
Janet and her brother Eric just completed a Day of the Dead Altar (Ofrenda) at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art, where they presented a lecture about the meaning of the altar and life in their village just outside of Oaxaca City. Janet recounts that on October 31, the day before the Day of the Dead celebration on November 1, she and her mother Dolores go to the village market to buy fresh fruit and bread and chocolate and other delicious traditional foods preferred by the loved ones who have departed. Around 1 p.m., head of the household Federico Chavez will place the foods on the altar. (Every family in the village will have a separate altar room that is used for this and other special celebrations.) Dolores and Janet will be busy in the kitchen preparing tamales or mole or barbacoa (barbecue).
People in the village of Teotitlan believe that at 3 p.m. on November 1 the souls of the dead relatives will arrive and begin to enter the houses of their families. The sound of firecrackers can be heard throughout the village to usher in their welcome. The altar rooms will be filled with sweet copal incense. A festive table will be set in the altar room and families like the Chavez Santigos gather to each the special meal. Then, they’ll go to visit and pay their respects to their relatives, godparents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, bringing bread, fruit, pecans, peanuts, mezcal and chocolate, to pay tribute and honor the dead of those families. The offerings are wrapped in a specially embroidered cloth and folded in a bundle to present to the woman of the house to put on the altar. The tradition is for honoring relationships, memories and sharing. The visitor, in turn, is invited to sit, take some bread and chocolate, drink mezcal and catch up on family and village life. In the Chavez home, visitors are presented with a gift of fruit, bread or tamales from the altar.
The altar is ripe with symbolism. In Teotitlan del Valle, traditional altars are built to represent the underworld, the earth and the sky. The earth is the table of the altar and the sky is represented by the framed images of the Virgen de Guadalupe and Jesus Christo that hang on the wall behind the altar. An arch of sugar cane frames the images and represents a door to the sky. Beneath the altar are lit candles, smoking incense and urns of marigold flowers. The light and scents help the dead relatives find a path through the underworld to come to earth to revisit their relatives who have provided an altar full of favorite foods to entice their loved ones back to earth. A framed photo Eric and Janet’s grandparents occupy a prominent place on their altar, which is also adorned with cut out colored paper that represents the air.
If grandfather loved mole Amarillo, it will be there on the altar for his lunch. If Tia Ofelia loved candy, it will be there on the altar. If primo Arnulfo always insisted on eating tamales con pollo con salsa verde, then chicken tamales with green chile sauce will be there for him. A glass of water or mezcal or beer is placed nearby. The meal will be luxurious for the living and the dead.
On November 2 at exactly 3 p.m., the souls of the relatives leave through the arch to return to the sky or heaven. Then, Teotitecos go to the cemetary at 4 p.m. to spend the night with their family members, carrying with them more marigold flowers, incense, candles and food. This year, 2008, the dead will leave on November 3 because November 2 is a Sunday, and if it is Sunday, the doors of the cemetery will be closed. The souls of the dead cannot leave on a Sunday.
Eric adds that you can find many different versions of The Day of the Dead in each village and the city of Oaxaca, as well as throughout Mexico. Some believe that dead children will return on October 31 and depart on November 1 at 3 p.m. just as the adult spirits are arriving. “Starting on October 31 through November 2, my mom puts out chocolate and soup for breakfast, then mole coloradito or mole negro for comida (lunch), and a cup of hot chocolate and bread for cena (dinner) at night. The food on the altar changes for each meal over the three days. That’s how we do it in Teotitlan.”