The streets of Xoxo (pronounced Ho-Ho) are packed with cars by 7:00 p.m. and it is difficult to find a place to park without having to walk miles to the cemetery. I had hired a van and driver to take our small group to this village famous for its October 31 Day of the Dead “All Souls’ Day” celebration. He led us through the streets lined with stalls where women were cooking on outdoor griddles (comals), where artists were displaying their paintings for sale, where street vendors were selling masks and candles and flowers and bread. At the end of the street just before the cemetery entrance a brass band from the village was playing a medley of tunes. We agreed on a meeting time in case we separated and entered the sacred space. The walls of the cemetery (panteon) were high brick, maybe fourteen feet tall, covered with stucco. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, the glow of candles illuminated the place and cast dancing shadows on the faces of men, women and children, vases of flowers, and headstones.
The ground was uneven as I groped my way around the valleys between the mounds of earth that differentiated each grave. (I should have worn tennis shoes, I reminded myself.) As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see the family groups hovering around the resting places of their loved ones. Yet, the scene was punctuated by visitors who looked like me climbing over and between tombs, trying to get a good camera angle. I heard English, German, Dutch, French and Spanish. I was witness to an argumentative visitor who insisted to her travel guide that she was not drunk and was not leaving. I can’t imagine that graves were not desecrated during this extravaganza and I continue to wonder how the locals really feel about their ritual becoming a tourist attraction.
In the center of the cemetery was a large, ancient structure, perhaps a church, whose walls were being held upright by timbers. There was no roof and inside you could see the clear Oaxaca sky and the star field. Perhaps it had tumbled during an earthquake and was never repaired. Who knows?
This cemetery was small and I soon learned after asking that this was the village’s old cemetery (Panteon Viejo). Donde esta el nuevo? I asked. I had been to the Xoxocotlan Day of the Dead before but this particular cemetery was unfamiliar to me. It did not have the energetic carnival atmosphere of the Xoxo that I was familiar with. The new cemetery is about six blocks from here, a villager answered and pointed me in the general direction and I took off, making my way through a street festival that could only be produced in Mexico — crowds shoulder to shoulder, food stalls, games, music, beer and mescal, barbeque, rides and lottery. The overhead lights looked like Christmas magnified. I knew I was heading to the right place. Then I heard the chanteuse belting out a soprano that could only cause one to shiver and I followed her voice. She was backed up by an orchestra on a stage under a huge tent at the entrance to the New Cemetery. The lane leading to the arched opening was lined with commercial vendors selling toys, lanterns, lights, masks, and other Day of the Dead accoutrements.
I entered the space to be greeted by huge crowds in Halloween-esque costumes, strolling mariachis, graves decorated with balloons, plastic pumpkin lanterns, flowers, teens and young adults on dates or prowling for them, and plenty of drink. There was so much light from the multitude of candles and overhead lanterns that camera flash was hardly needed.
I returned to the Old Cemetery to find my group and asked them if they wanted the experience of seeing a counterpoint to the serenity of what we encountered at the original Xoxo site. With a resounding YES, we made our way together. Needless to say, it was a very late night and we didn’t get back to our hotel until after 1 p.m. However, I know that the revelers will have outdone us and stayed up till dawn waiting for their loved ones to come back from the dead to visit one more year for one more day.