Copal incense fills the air. Candlelight guides us. Faces are illuminated in the shadows as they lean over the graves of loved ones. The two cemeteries in the village of Xoxocotlan just about 15 minutes outside of Oaxaca city are aglow as night falls and the October 31 celebration begins.
We arrive in late afternoon with plenty of time to find a parking spot and get the magic light as day closes. This also gives us a chance to be with locals who arrive early with flowers, candles, fruit, chocolate and bread to decorate the sites of family members who have died.
Our photography workshop combines understanding and participating in this ancient pre-Hispanic ritual that has been adapted to coincide with All Saints and All Souls Days. We learn about photographic techniques for nighttime photography and use the location to practice ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
Gravesite feature photos of the departed and special decorations that reflect what the they loved. If it is the grave of a child, we often see balloons and toy figures. The voice of strolling minstrels fill the distant air.
There are plenty of marigold and lilies. Marigold petals are strewn or arranged in the shape of a cross over many gravesites. Zapotecs believe that the sweet, pungent aroma helps guide their loved ones back to earth.
We begin at the Panteon Viejo — the old cemetery. In the middle is an ancient, crumbling adobe church. Some say it has been there forever. It has no roof and the walls are so decayed that this year the town roped it off — a signal for no trespassing. In the old cemetery, the graves are tended or not, with little space to walk between them. It is the perfect location to start with.
The new cemetery is several blocks away. Between the two, home cooks set up street-side stands that offer respite with tamales, beer and mezcal. Walls are painted with fantastical murals depicting Day of the Dead images done by local artists with spray paint.
The contrast between the new and old cemeteries is like stepping back in time and then going into the age of high tech. There are strobe lights, lots of tourists, many locals and visitors dressed in costumes, a projected live cam of the symphony orchestra concert going on out in front of the entrance, television cameramen and documentarians.
The beauty is that in one village you can get a sense of the ancient traditions and more of a mardi gras atmosphere.
Today we are in Teotitlan del Valle getting ready to have dinner with families and then go with them to the local cemetery. Being embedded with a family gives us a sense of belonging and a better understanding of the culture.