Another Year in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca, Day of the Dead

It’s my habit, practice, custom, wish to leave Oaxaca city at 3:00 p.m. to arrive at the old cemetery (panteon) in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan by 4:00 p.m. to celebrate Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos. I go there first and spend at least an hour and half in this sacred space. It’s just before the magic hour, before the light begins to fade at dusk. Getting there early has another advantage — a parking place close to the center of town.

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The old cemetery is magical. It houses the remains of an old adobe church with crumbling walls that are held up by wood scaffolding. The fading stucco lintel can still be read, dated 1648 and adorned with cherubs and saints. It is roofless.

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Yellow plastic do not cross–danger zone tape is a warning against entry. There is more of it this year. There are tombs inside. Last year a family invited us in to join them at an ancestor’s grave covered with flowers. This year, there was no one and I didn’t see any flowers. Perhaps it is now too dangerous to enter. I don’t know if there is a restoration plan.

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Some of the grave stones are so weathered they are hard to read. Other tombs are marked by simple crosses and mounds of earth. You can tell who still has relatives in town who will pay attention to the dead. Some graves are empty of adornment. Others may have a token marigold plant so the souls know where to return.

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We step carefully. Grave sites are adjoining and there is no clear path. If you aren’t careful, you can trip and fall. I stand against the concrete wall that holds this space to take it all in, look at the clear Oaxaca sky, think about life and death, and see an ancient Zapotec tradition unfold that pre-dates the Spanish conquest. I never tire of this. There are ancient bones here.

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Just as in Teotitlan del Valle and San Pablo Villa de Mitla, locals welcome tourists because tourism is essential for Oaxaca’s economy. Those in larger villages accustomed to visitors for Muertos usually don’t mind having their photos taken but I’m always careful to ask. In the smaller villages, it’s still awkward since tourism is a relatively new phenomenon.

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This year, however, what captivated me most was the changing, deteriorating structure of the old adobe, the arrival of the old and young together to tend to tradition, and the profusion of flowers.

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As I rounded a corner I found a four-legged friend who was barking, guarding her own treasure hidden beneath the marble roof of an old monument that was now serving another purpose — shelter for new-born pups.

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There is a profusion of homeless street dogs in Oaxaca. Most are never neutered and families usually don’t want females because they become pregnant. Duh! In some of the pueblos there is a growing movement toward education about animal protection/sterilization. But it is slow to take hold.

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At every cemetery throughout Oaxaca, families bring in bundles of marigolds and purple cockscomb, vases, candles, oranges and bananas, brooms to sweep up the dried flowers from last year. Often they use wheelbarrows provided by the cemetery committee in each village. There is always a water cistern close by.

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Don’t worry. You can buy candles, flowers and fruit right out on the street on your way to the cemetery. There are plenty of places to snack, grab a beer, and entertain yourself with amusements for children and adults, see the sand sculpture and an art exhibition. Wood-carvers from San Antonio Arrazola have a great annual display of alebrijes, too.

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As we made our way through town to the new cemetery, we began to feel a different vibe. It was beginning look more like Halloween and an all-night party. It was only 7:00 p.m. The night was young and the young ones were getting ready.

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Xoxo (Ho-Ho), as the town is called for short, has many wonderful murals on the Day of the Dead theme that are spray painted by street artists. This is a close-up of one below.

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At the main cemetery, mezcal is offered freely to visitors by those gathered graveside. This burial ground is a wide open space with strolling mariachis and lots of flash photography.

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We didn’t linger there long — long enough to get the taste of the wild and wonderful celebration to come later, and long enough to sip a mezcal with a family in tribute to their ancestors. Remember, the dead are only dead if no one remembers them and celebrates their lives.

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Perhaps this will be my last Dia de los Muertos post this year. We shall see. I hope you have enjoyed the series, and may your departed loved ones continue to rest easy.

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Tips to Participate:  Bring several bundles of marigold flowers and offer some to local people to add to the tombs. You can also bring bananas, oranges and nuts. This is a very thoughtful gesture that demonstrates your desire to share in the ritual. Smile. Sit a while. Even if you don’t speak Spanish and smile and nod of acknowledgement goes a long way to friend-building.

 

 

 

8 Responses to Another Year in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca, Day of the Dead

  1. Thank you for these wonderful blog posts. I came to Oaxaca for the first time in early October . I will be returning for Dia de Los Muertos this next year. I cannot wait ! Oaxaca rearranged the furniture in my brain ! I have fallen in love and will never be quite the same. Isn’t it wonderful when travel and exploration has such a profound effect. I found your site through MK Kabrito ( Allen) when I was purchasing some of his art work . He had an article you had written. Cheers!

    • Jenny, yes Oaxaca is Intoxicating and addictive. I’m so glad the city has captured your heart as it has for so many of us, offering such riches in so many different areas. Alan Altamirano does amazing graphic arts and it good to hear you have supported him and his studio workshop La Chicharra graphic arts. Please let me know when you return. It would be a pleasure to know you.

  2. Gracias for this series, Norma. Especially this one. Many years ago, two of my closest friends and I sat in silence, on a wooden plank, next to this ruin. In the darkness, we watched the sparks of the flickering candlelight shoot upwards into the night and we were intensely moved by the beauty and tradition we were privileged to witness. Just as you say, we shared guitar music and songs with a family and were warmed by the mescal they offered us. It was a profound experience of thoughts about life, death and love in the world, for each of us, and a memory we speak of often. We will never forget it. We will never forget spending that night with each other.

    • Suzanne, thanks for your sensitive re punting of your own experience and how this tradition is transformative. It was especially so for me this year as I visited 3 oa teo s I. More intimate spaces. Sending hugs.

  3. Thank you Norma – beautiful photographs and your knowledge of the events.

    Susanne

  4. On the upper side of Monte Alban above Xoxocotlan there is a dam behind which is a reservoir to capture rain water off the top main platform of Monte Alban. That impounded rain water was run first down a canal dug out of rock and then into ditches to water the fields above Xoxo. (Discovered during our 1971 field survey of settlement patterns.)

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