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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.




Traditional Altars: Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico

After a night spent in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan cemetery on October 31 for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico, I headed back to the Tlacolula Valley on Sunday morning. I was invited to San Pablo Villa de Mitla by friends Arturo Hernandez and Epifanio Ruiz Perez to visit for Day of the Dead. Here in Mitla it is always celebrated on November 1.

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Mitla, or originally Mictlan, is an ancient Zapotec town at the valley terminus with Mixtec influences carved into its archeological ruins. Mitla was just named a Pueblo Magico so it’s likely that in future years there will be many more tourists there for Muertos.

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Arturo took me to the cemetery with him to place flowers on his mother’s grave. The practice in Mitla is different from Teotitlan del Valle, and likely different for each of the Zapotec villages throughout Oaxaca.

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Here, he explained, the people come to the cemetery early in the morning, clean the sites of their loved ones, place fresh flowers, light copal incense and finish by noon. The firecrackers go off as the signal to finish.

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Then, they immediately return home to wait for the disfundos (the deceased) to return and join them for the afternoon meal. By one o’clock, the cemetery is empty. There is no sitting around the tombs here, like there is in other Oaxaca cemeteries.


This is a family, home-based tradition, says Arturo. Everyone leaves their doors open so that the spirits of loved ones can find their way home, following the scent of marigold, copal incense and the lure of their favorite foods or even a cigarette and shot of mezcal.


At the Mitla cemetery I met Gildardo Hernandez Quero who has a very traditional altar and is known for his in-depth historical knowledge of Mitla and the ways of practicing Day of the Dead from pre-Hispanic times. He invited us to visit.  With an offering of a loaf of Pan de Muertos and a bottle of mezcal for the altar, Arturo and I set out to pay our respects.


This is a visiting day. Family and close friends go to each other’s home with flowers, a candle, perhaps bread and chocolate. There is always a candle burning in front of the altar and a fresh one guarantees the light will never extinguish during the 24-hour visit of the dead.

Visitors sit a while. They talk. They remember. No visit is shorter than an hour. You can’t be in a hurry here. You are offered hot chocolate and a piece of sweet egg bread. Perhaps you are invited to taste the mole negro with guajolote. You will always be offered mezcal.


Gilardo’s altar is a ritual vision of serenity that combines pre- and post-Hispanic traditions. Photos of saints adorn the wall. A woven mat, the traditional sleeping mattress called a petate, is on the floor where the dead come to rest. Also on the floor is the candle, jug of mezcal, a squash gourd, beans, fruit and flowers — symbols of the harvest and bounty. Altars were always constructed on the ground before the conquest.

The concrete altar with its arch base is a colonial design imported along with bread, Gilardo says. He also points to the coarse traditional tortilla, black from the comal, that asks us to remember to honor indigenous corn that sustains the people.

We sit a while, talk about the politics of historic preservation and what it means for Mitla now that the town is a Pueblo Magico.

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I go back with Arturo to his house where I share a meal with his family and then make a visit to Epifanio Ruiz in the center of town. Epifanio has an antique business on Calle 5 de Mayo. Some of my vintage glass mezcal bottles come from him. He also is recognized by the town for his traditional altar.


I have another mezcal, a hot chocolate and bread, and Epifanio brings me mole chichilo. This is a traditional savory mole that is made the same way as mole negro except without the chocolate, so it doesn’t have the thick chocolate sweetness. I only have room for a taste. It is very good.


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Then, I get back to Teotitlan, make a stop to visit Michelle. She has house guests visiting from the United States for the week, so she asked each of them to bring a family photo to add to the altar, which each of them participated in building.

Next, I visit to say hello to the Chavez Santiago family. They sit around the dining room table in their altar room, eating fruit and nuts, playing card games, sipping mezcal and keeping their dead loved ones company.

It’s after dark when I get to the casita.

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At home, I light the 24-hour candle on my own altar in honor of our dad, set the mezcal bottles and copal incense burner on the floor, get cozy in the easy chair and continue to remember.

Practices and traditions for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca vary from village to village, and are held on different days. Epifanio says that the remote village of San Lorenzo Albarradas holds the celebration for a week.


The Teotitlan del Valle church bells are ringing. Someone is in the bell tower for 24-hours and the bells toll from 3 p.m. November 1 to 3 p.m. November 2. Today we will have a 3:00 p.m. meal with the disfundos and then guide them back to the tombs to rest for another year. We will sit with them at their tombs to ensure they rest easy and then return home.

Someone I knew once said, The dead don’t care.  I think he’s wrong. I think they do.


Marigolds and Altars: Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico

The campo (countryside) is a blanket of tiny yellow flowers called cempasuchitl or wild marigolds that come up in southern Mexico this time of year.  It’s less than a week before Day of the Dead here in Oaxaca. Preparations have begun.


My friend Guadalupe was at the casita yesterday and she explained that the intense yellow color of the wild marigold signals the dead to return to earth for Dia de los Muertos. That’s why they are a prominent part of altars.

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The dead like color, she says, and the strong scent of the marigolds. Lupe also said that the bees make a deep yellow honey from the wild marigolds this time of year and this can be special addition to the altar.

MuertosBread-2I started to gather and build my altar yesterday. It is not yet complete. Front and center is a photo of our dad who passed in 1997.  As I duplicated the photo, cut foam board and secured it to the photo, I had a sense of well-being, connection and loving memory. It is a meaningful experience to make a memory altar to honor a loved one who is no longer here.

MarigoldAltar12-5Our dad was a teacher in the Los Angeles City School District for over thirty years. He went out on strike once to protest a wage cut. I remember our mom was scared because there would be no income until he went back to work.  Our family was still young and with three children. Even so, he chose to stick to his principles. He was the son of immigrants and knew the importance of a fair wage and decent working conditions. This is our favorite photo of him.

This altar is a tribute to him.


It is somewhat typical of Teotitlan del Valle altars. It has the favorite food and beverages that the deceased liked. Bread. Chocolate. Fruit. Nuts. A soft drink and/or a bottle of beer. Perhaps a bowl of atole. Our parents weren’t drinkers, but on occasion our dad would enjoy a beer. I’m sure in his lifetime he had a Victoria when we went out to eat at a Mexican restaurant. So here it is along with my artisanal mezcal collection in garafones (hand-blown bottles).


There is more to add. The palm fronds used for arches that allow the dead to enter earth from the underworld won’t be available until later this week. I will wait to get fresh marigolds for November 1. I’ve already prepared the copal incense burner. The aroma also helps guide the spirits home. Lupe says I need to add peanuts even though I have pecans. Maybe I’ll put a marigold arch over the front doorway.

Day of the Dead is a pre-Hispanic tradition that blends into All Saints and All Souls Days which some also mistakenly refer to in the U.S.A. as Halloween. It isn’t Halloween here, said my friend Danny Hernandez. Some of the locals are not happy that the occasion is moving away from the traditional celebration toward the commercial with spiders, bats and Jack O’Lanterns.


My experience in building this altar is to reaffirm that Day of the Dead is for anyone who wants to create something very tangible and joyful to remember a loved one. This is a personal and community tribute to the continuity of life each step of the way. In my world, I see it as ecumenical and non-denominational.

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Here in Teotitlan del Valle people will welcome their deceased into their homes on November 1 with a meal of chicken tamales with yellow mole.  On November 2 they will return to the cemetery to help guide the spirits’ return to the underworld after the 3 p.m. lunch. During this 24-hour period, they will receive visitors and make visits to family and friends with altar gifts of chocolate, Pan de Muertos, beer and mezcal to honor family and loved ones.


P.S. Weavers in Teotitlan del Valle who work with natural dyes collect cempasuchitl this time of year and hang it to dry. It makes a beautiful yellow dye on wool and silk.  When over-dyed with indigo, it is the color of the corn leaves in the photo above.


Ancient Rocks and Rainbows: San Pablo Villa de Mitla

On Thursday this week, Lupita came to visit. She is age 10, soon to be eleven next month. We were looking through photographs on my computer and found one when she was a toddler playing in a pile of wool.

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She might want this photo for her quinceañera. That got us to talking about being young and Zapotec. As we scrolled through photos, I stopped on a photo of the San Pablo Villa de Mitla archeological site. What’s that? Lupita said. You haven’t been to Mitla? I asked. Do you want to go tomorrow?


I was actually struck by the fact that here we are just 10 miles and 20 minutes from one of the most amazing archeological sites in Mesoamerica and Lupita hasn’t been there. She hasn’t been to Monte Alban either. We have a lot of traveling to do. Next week, I’ll take her to Yagul. Maybe another young friend, Cristobal, will come, too


When we got to Mitla early Friday morning, the place was empty.  I explained how important this post-classical site is and how special it is to be Zapotec with a proud and ancient history. Here and at Monte Alban, the Zapotecs commanded a great nation. There are so many more ancient rocks yet to uncover.

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Lupita climbed up the temple steps and then down into the tombs. We talked about how the ancient burial ritual was to move the bones of the those buried before aside to make way for those who had just died. They would be buried in the same tomb. We compared how this ancient Zapotec practice is exactly the way it is today in her village of Teotitlan del Valle.


Next week we will go to the cemeteries to celebrate the dead and their return to visit loved ones. Dia de los Muertos is about the continuity of life and it occurs to me that there is no greater tribute than burial in the same resting place as a beloved ancestor.

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We talked about the history of the Spanish conquest, conversion, how the conquerors took the ancient rocks from the temples and used them to build church walls to attract the people to the new religion.

Codices etched in plaster, painted with cochineal

Codices etched in plaster, painted with cochineal

I showed Lupita the example of the wall integrated into the Mitla church structure and pointed to the carved patterns that most Teotitlan del Valle weavers have incorporated into their rug designs.


Biznaga cactus in bloom, an endangered species

There’s a lot of activity in Mitla now, fresh paint, new hotels and restaurants, since the town just became a Pueblo Magico.


We finished up our day together with lunch in Tlacolula at Comedor Mary. Then, I got Lupita to school in time for the start of her 1:30 p.m. classes.

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With the day only half-finished, I got into my creative side, making flower pins from wool I had felted last year. After “cooking” the finished flowers in hot water with a bit of vinegar, I took them up to the terrace to hang on the line to dry. Oops, why not take a photo? It was such a gorgeous day. When, I returned to the terrace with my camera, this is what I saw.

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Oaxaca Filmfest This Week to October 17

There are five more days to enjoy the international Oaxaca Filmfest that is bringing filmmakers and audiences here from throughout the world. So many movies, so little time! From full-length feature films to shorts and short shorts, fiction and documentaries, you can fill your days and nights with movie-going.


Last night I saw the Thin Yellow Line, La Delgada Linea Amarilla, a beautiful, well-crafted, sensitive Mexican film written and directed by Celso R. Garcia, at the Teatro Juarez, one of the venues across from Llano Park. It will play again later this week in other locations where films are being screened around town.


I highly recommend that you see it. Here’ is Variety’s review. The cinematography is delicious, expansive. The film is luxuriously slow and spends time introducing the characters, all men who meet for the first time hired to work on painting the center yellow line on a remote Mexican road. In the course of their 217 km obligation, you find out who they are, why they are there and their developing relationships with each other. It is funny, heartwarming, sad and intelligent.

Don’t worry. The film has English sub-titles if you need it.

On Thursday, I’m going to Oaxaca Cineopolis in Plaza del Valle for the 3 p.m. screening of Perdiendo el Norte, followed by the 5 p.m. screening of Diamond Tongues, followed by the 9 p.m. screening of High Sun.  Meet me there?


I want to see Speed Sisters, Nicodemus, The Wannabe and El Tiempo Suspendido. Friends tell me Bridgend is another must see. I’m not going to be able to fit it all in.

All the films are free and open to the public except for the screenings that are fundraisers for local not-for-profits. A modest donation will get you in.

And Saturday at noon, is the Met Opera performing Othello (ticket cost 150 pesos) at Teatro Macedonio Alcala. I hear there are classical guitar concerts around town in the evening this week, too.

I mapped out my schedule and read the separate thick program book first to determine which films I wanted to see. You can get the program schedule at the Oaxaca Filmfest headquarters on Andador Alcala in the interior plaza next to La Brujula coffee shop in the block just before Santo Domingo church.

If you have seen films in this festival that you want to recommend, please comment and tell us why!