Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, American Federation of Teachers strike for fair wages, 1960’s, Los Angeles. Selenium filter a la Ansel Adams.
We just finished a week of publishing a Day of the Dead Photography Challenge over at the Facebook site I manage, Mexico Travel Photography. You might want to jump over there to take a look at some amazing shots of this spiritual celebration of life and death. Consider joining and participating if you are not already a member.
Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.
What everyone loves about Mexico is her vibrant color. Everywhere. Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life and death. There is nothing more vibrant than the flowers that adorn altars and grave sites, market life and costumes.
4 crosses on family plot where generations can be buried 10 years apart. Copper filter.
A friend asked me today, what is Muertos? Is it like Halloween? My answer is definitely NO … and SORT OF.
Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.
Here is my short-version explanation: When the Spanish came to Mexico in 1521, they co-opted an indigenous ancestor worship tradition (Day of the Dead) and overlaid it with All Saints and All Souls Day observations. All Saints’ Day begins with All Hallows Eve, or Halloween with deep Catholic religious and spiritual tradition.
At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos, Oaxaca city.
All Souls’ Day commemorates the faithfully departed and is most closely linked to the death and resurrection of Christ.
Skulls in the market. Most altars have some form of them.
The Spanish were very smart conquerors. Rather than obliterating the religious practices of indigenous people, they integrated observances to make conversion much more palatable. It is possible that Muertos was celebrated during another time of year. As with most other rituals, it moved to coincide with a Catholic feast day.
Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Before the Spanish conquest, Dia de Los Muertos had no link to Halloween. In recent years the US images of pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, black cats and gauzy synthetic cobwebs have migrated across the border as Mexicans born in the USA visit their family in cities and villages throughout the country. We see this blending of commercialism and ancient tradition throughout Oaxaca.
Calavera (skeleton) sculpture, chiseling stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015
I’m editing my photos first using Lightroom, a Photoshop editing tool. Then, I convert these photos to SilverEfex, a free black and white software editing tool now owned by Google. It’s easy to download. You can choose filters, film type and manipulate the histogram if you wish. I’m having fun with it and wanted to share what I’ve done with you.
Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle. Intentional?
In case you are interested it takes me from 2 to 4 hours to make a blog post. This includes selecting and editing the photos and then writing the text (or vice versa!) Thank you for reading and following.
Dia de los Muertos is a festive, joyous and religious celebration that is one of the most important in Mexico. Families honor the memory of their ancestors and the continuity of life with the belief that the souls of departed loved ones return to visit once a year. A blend of ancient indigenous and European Catholic traditions, Dia de los Muertos is not a time of mourning. It is believed the practice began long before the Spanish conquest, perhaps as early as the Olmec civilization more than 3,000 years ago. Later cultures — the Toltecs, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec and Aztecs — adopted the early practices. At the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century, the dominant Aztec celebration was held during the month of Miccailhitonitl presided over by the goddess of the same name (translated to Lady of the Dead).
In an effort to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism, the church incorporated the Aztec celebration with All Saints’ Day and All Hallows Eve (Halloween). In Oaxaca, the celebrations begin on October 31 and continue through November 2. Preparations begin weeks in advance. Although the skeleton is a predominant symbol for both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, the meaning is very different. In Mexico, the skeleton (calavera) represents the dead playfully mimicking the living and not a macabre symbol at all.
Each Oaxaca village celebrates with parades and processions. Families make an ofrenda or offering on the home altar and on gravesite. In Xoxocotlan, the major celebration is at the cemetery on All Hallows Eve, the night of October 31. All Saints’ Day, November 1, is celebrated in San Augustin Etla and San Pablo Villa de Mitla. In Teotitlan del Valle, the village celebrates at their cemetery on All Souls’ Day, November 2. Throughout the city of Oaxaca there are calendas or processions throughout this several day period, including those with children dressed in costume.
The Ofrenda or Offering
Home altar rooms are the social center and spiritual hub of Zapotec households. This is where the family gathers and greets relatives and friends for engagements, weddings, baptisms, birthday parties, and deaths. Home altars are designed in a specific way to allow the spirits of ancestors to easily return to visit their living loved ones during Day of the Dead. In addition, businesses, hotels, restaurants, churches, museums and offices will also prepare an altar to honor their dead and await their spirits. Some altars will have a path of marigold flowers leading to it to help guide the way, depending upon family traditions. Altars are decorated with the favorite foods and beverages of the deceased along with their photos. Bread, chocolate, beer, mescal, a favorite soft drink, nuts and fruit, marigolds, sugar cane stalks, and skull shaped candies decorate the altar along with with the incense and candles. The aroma of fragrant flowers, copal incense, and the light of the candles are essential elements in helping the dead find their way back from the spirit world.
Visitors to Oaxaca homes in the city or in a village during this time should not go empty handed! It is a courtesy to bring a loaf of pan muerto, chocolate, a bottle of mescal or a six-pack of beer. The hospitality will be reciprocated: you will be offered hot chocolate, a slice of bread and a shot of mescal in true guelaguetza fashion.
The Xoxocotlan Cemetery is a frenzy crowds, candles, flowers, families picnicking, strolling musicians, local costumed revelers and a g-zillion visitors. The sun sets this time of year at around 7 p.m. and that’s when most people arrive. Even then, it’s difficult to find a parking space and there is a taxi line-up going into town. There are TWO cemeteries in Xoxo, and if you have time, be sure to see them both. They are about six blocks apart. The new cemetery is huge and that’s where the biggest party takes place. At the entrance is a giant tent with a bandstand and chairs for the audience. The music ranges from local bands with vocalists to symphony. Lining the side streets are tented booths selling food and carnival trinkets. The old cemetery is smaller and more serene. The grave sites abut each other with few places to walk without stumbling over a candle or a cross. At the center of this space is a crumbling, ancient church whose roof disappeared long ago.
In Oaxaca city, the Benito Juarez and Abastos Markets are filled with food, flowers, sugar and chocolate and sesame candy skulls, egg bread in various shapes decorated with painted heads of saints, mounds of cinnamon sticks, and fabled Oaxaca chocolate, plus whatever else you can imagine. You could get lost in the flowers.
So, as we think about Day of the Dead, it is important to challenge our own cultural beliefs by understanding that death in Mexico is considered a positive part of the life cycle and a time for remembrance.
About Day of the Dead: What it is and isn’t!
It is not Halloween. Mexicans have celebrated Day of the Dead for thousands of years.
It is not morbid; there are no pictures of dead people, ghosts, witches or devils.
It isn’t a cult. It is a Catholic ritual blended with folk culture.
It honors dead relatives, but it does not dwell on death. It celebrates life, cultural heritage, ancestors, and the meaning and purpose of our own life on earth.
Altars or ofrendas are not for ancestor worship, but for offering love and remembrance.
It is not a sad ritual, but a joyful one.
It is not about fear, but about love.
It is not “strange” and is like going to paying respects at a grave, leaving flowers, and lighting a candle.
It is not disrespectful; it is a reflection on the cycle of life.
Countdown to Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
October 31–All Hallows Eve
Our family friend, Janet Chavez Santiago, tells us that we don’t want to miss being with them in the village of Teotitlan del Valle on October 31. This is when the Zapotec villagers go to the local market to buy the fruits and special bread for the altar that is part of each family’s home. Her brother Eric tells me that this market day in Teotitlan del Valle is one of the largest and most abundant of the year.
November 1–All Saints’ Day
Oaxacan Zapotecs believe that the souls of all their dead relatives will arrive in the altar room of their houses at 3:00 p.m. So, the family gathers there, eat tamales together, light candles and welcome the spiritual return of their loved ones. At 5:00 p.m. after the special comida, the practice is to visit the houses of their relatives to pay respects to the souls of the extended family members who have passed. Janet says that many family visitors come to their house, too, bringing gifts for the altar that include some of the favorite foods of the dead.
November 2–All Souls’ Day
Everyone stays home to rest, to visit more, and to be with the spirits of the dead relatives. At 3:00 p.m. the souls return to the cemetery and there is a family procession to the graveyard to accompany the souls as they re-enter the graves. Family members sit by the grave side in solitude and reflection in this village. The ceremony here is very low-key compared to Xoxocotlan.
We are fine-tuning the experience! Two highlights to alert you about: On All Saint’s Day Eve, we will start out for the Xoxocotlan cemetery in mid-afternoon to capture the final decorating of family gravesites as dusk settles and the world glows at that magic hour just before sunset. On All Soul’s Day, each participant will be embedded with a Zapotec family in the village of Teotitlan del Valle to personally participate and document in family rituals as the spirits of loved ones who have returned to earth are guided back to their final resting place. This expedition will be an unforgettable experience!
Oaxaca Day of the Dead 2011 Photography Expedition
There were six of us trailing Magdalena into the village panteon at 5:30 p.m. for the annual ritual of sitting at the grave site to pay respects to loved ones gone. It was All Souls Day, November 2 in Teotitlan del Valle. The ritual in the village is an ancient one, predating the Spanish conquest of 1521. On November 2 the souls return to their graves for another year after having made a 24-hour visit that begins at 3 p.m. on November 1 and ending at 3 p.m. on November 2. The church bells toll for 24-hours marking the time and in the bell-tower you can see the men who have volunteered from each section of the village to pull the heavy bell chord day and night.
Earlier in the day after breakfast we had taken bundles of flowers to the graves of Magda’s son and husband, putting them in urns filled with water to keep them fresh. The tombs throughout the courtyard were covered with lilies, roses, and marigolds. Freshly quartered oranges, pecans, and peanuts were set in neat little piles to feed the souls before the returned to the earth. In the morning, the cemetery was quiet, reflective, reverent. It was empty except for a few men who were cleaning the dirt paths between the graves and keeping the urns filled with water so the flowers would stay fresh. We tip-toed gently to read the names of the dead on the elaborate crosses at the heads of each grave. Why, we asked, were there so many crosses on each grave site? Magda told us that a cross is put there when a person is first buried and then second one is added at the one-year anniversary when the family gathers for a memorial. Each family may have several plots in the cemetery, and after ten years a burial place can be re-used — a much different and more recycleable approach to burial than in the United States. Ten years is about the time it takes for the body and bones to decompose; new earth is added and the cycle begins again.
As we entered the cemetery at 5:30 p.m. we saw a large tour group of about 15-20 people with very serious cameras and flash equipment strolling the cemetery. They were part of a well-known U.S. organization that organizes adventure travel around the world in addition to publishing a monthly magazine that has been in existence for well over 100 years. The people were boisterous, took photos without asking permission, and invaded the tranquil ritual sanctuary of this small village cemetery. The use of flash was ubiquitous. I noticed the photographers just a few feet away from elderly couples sitting at the grave sites, their camera lenses pointed directly in their subjects faces, holding flash strobes, and taking photos repeatedly to get the best shot. They didn’t appear to have much awareness of their impact. We were uncomfortable. Our own small group gathered and decided that there was not enough ambient light by that time (there were few candles in this cemetery as compared to Xoxocotlan) to allow us to take reasonable photos without using flash and being invasive. So, we decided to leave after about a half hour.
We talked about this experience over dinner and then the next morning. It seemed to all of us that the well-known travel company had not prepared people for the cultural experience of going into a small village environment. It appeared that their approach was not as participants but as observers — there to capture an image and leave. We discussed the impact of being from the U.S. and how others’ behaviors from the same country can reflect on all of us. Each tourist has a responsibility to behave respectfully so that as a group we will be welcomed back. As Americans, it is easy for us to forget the historical experience of our indigenous hosts. We must own our own part in the history of colonizers. Americans and Europeans must be aware of our impact as we travel. The cemetery experience brought to light both the positive and negative aspects of what it means to participate in ancient rituals and the responsibilities that accompany that. Fortunately, we had the opportunity to be sharing the home of a local family and were invited by them to go to the cemetery. We were not convinced that the other group even engaged in any conversation in preparation for their visit.
If you have thoughts and ideas about this dilemma that you would like to share, please add to the commentary. Thank you.
Zayzelle: Dress Simply is our new clothing line, one dress, one-of-a-kind, one size fits many, imaginative cloth. Plus, jewelry and an easy-to-wear pullover scarf. Keep checking back for What’s New.
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
Click image to order yours!
Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
Programs can be scheduled to meet your travel plans. Send us your available dates.
Designers, retailers, wholesalers, universities and other organizations come to us to develop customized itineraries, study abroad programs, meetings and conferences. It's our pleasure to make arrangements.
Our Clients Include
*Penland School of Crafts
*North Carolina State University
*WARP Weave a Real Peace