Tag Archives: day of the dead

On The Road, Again: Leaving Oaxaca, Hello North Carolina, California and India

If I had Willie Nelson’s voice and guitar picking skills, I’d give you a personal performance. But, my elementary school glee club (mandatory) teacher asked me to mouth the words. You might like to hear him sing, once again.

Willie Sings: On The Road Again

I left Oaxaca early this morning and now overnight in my Mexico City hotel. Tomorrow morning I take off for North Carolina to vote. Yes, VOTE! I’m doing this in person because I want my vote to count this year. I have to do a legal voter registration name change in person before I can do early voting. This is really important because NC is a swing state. My vote matters.

See who I’m voting for!   As if you couldn’t guess. Smile.

There’s also Colie and Brad’s wedding this weekend. She’s my dear friend Hollie’s daughter and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I also get time with all my great NC pals Kathryn, Hettie, Karen and Steve, Cindy, Chris, Kate, Helen, Anne, Jo-Ann and Ted, Debbie, Judith, Robin, Kaola, Lew and Olive, and so many more …… Can’t wait.

The children's comparsa, Muertos

The children’s comparsa, Dia de los Muertos, Oaxaca

Next, I go to California to visit my son, and then our family gathers to lay the headstone on our mother’s grave in Santa Cruz. This will mark the first anniversary of her death on November 15, and in our religious tradition there is an important ceremony of remembrance.

The Old Cemetery, Xoxocotlan--Day of the Dead

The Old Cemetery, Xoxocotlan–Day of the Dead

My plan is to build a Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertos Altar in North Carolina to remember my parents. I have the copal incense and photos packed in my luggage.

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

On November 15, I fly to New Delhi, India, where I’ll meet up with Fay Sims from Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Oaxaca has given me many blessings. I met Fay in Oaxaca and we have traveled to Chiapas together, so we figured we would make good travel partners for India. We’ll be there for a month, focusing on the textile culture of Gujarat, including block printing with indigo dyes.

Example, Gujarat Block Print with Indigo

My first cousin Sharon and my aunt, my mother’s younger sister now age 98, also live in Delhi, and I’m excited to see them again after a many year lapse.

I plan to blog, photograph and write about Indian and Oaxacan textiles from a comparative point-of-view.

When I return to Los Angeles, my son and I will fly together back to Oaxaca just in time for Christmas.

You’ll hear from me intermittently over the next few weeks as I settle into living out of a suitcase once again.

Participate in the Dia de los Muertos–Day of the Dead 5-Day Photo Challenge at Mexico Travel Photography.

Oaxaca Safety and Day of the Dead: Come or Cancel?

I’m hearing about people thinking of canceling their Day of the Dead trips to Oaxaca this year. Someone said they were afraid of the Zika virus. I haven’t heard of any cases being reported here. Fear is powerful.

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

I returned to Oaxaca five days ago. It was an easy flight from Orange County, California (SNA) to Mexico City on Southwest, then a connection to Oaxaca on Interjet. I arrived in Teotitlan del Valle without incident. Not even an airplane snivel.

Out and about on Sunday in Mitla, I saw tourists. They are mostly Europeans, Germans, Swiss, French, Dutch. Fearless world travelers.

The children's comparsa, Muertos

The children’s comparsa, Muertos

We are rounding the corner to prepare for Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead. Oaxaca is famous for this celebration of life and its continuum. Hotels are usually booked a year in advance.

But fear is in the air. People are asking once again, Is it safe? Should I come? Should I cancel?

The 2016 Guelaguetza is behind us. Observing from my son’s California living room, I heard various numbers: from a 31% to 53% occupancy rate in Oaxaca hotels. This is devastating news to a tourism-dependent city.  Yet, I also heard the auditorium was packed with Mexicans and Europeans. Only the Americans missed out.

My own altar, in memory of dad. This year, we add our mother.

My own altar, in memory of dad. This year, we add our mother.

Why are we so afraid?  I think this is an important question to ask ourselves as protectionism and insularity dominate the political rhetoric in our social discourse. Are we willing to stay put, stay home, close ourselves off from an invigorating world that offers exploration and discovery, and is probably no more or less safe than going to the local mall. Fear is self-protection. It is also paralyzing.

Even Frida returns to celebrate

Even Frida returns to celebrate

I subscribe to Improvised Life. Sally Schneider talks about how important it is to lean into the fear that puts a stranglehold on us. Onward.

It’s true. Oaxaca struggles with its own political upheavals and social justice issues. The zocalo is a gathering place for dissidents and right now, it’s not pretty. The federal and state governments are prone to take impulsive, though calculated aggressive action against demonstrators. We are aware of where these potential flash points can happen and we steer clear. Just like we wouldn’t go into a U.S. neighborhood known to be volatile.

Offerings on the altar. Favorite foods, beverages.

Offerings on the altar. Favorite foods, beverages, pan de muertos

Yesterday, my inbox contained a message from a Day of the Dead tour leader to his clients who seem to be softening on their commitment to visit. In summary:

  • The zocalo occupation is not dangerous, just annoying
  • If there are roadblocks, they are not dangerous, just annoying
  • There is no random violence, nor is there violence focused at the public
  • Protest is a way of life here, guaranteed in the constitution as a way to express grievances
  • The protest leaders and government representatives continue to negotiate

We hope for the best. Meanwhile, life in Oaxaca continues to present its wonderful mysteries, artistic expression, great culinary taste sensations, and an unparalleled opportunity to meet artisans where they live and work.

Sand paintings, part of the transition, Muertos

Sand paintings, part of the transition, Muertos

I urge you to come and not cancel. Day of the Dead is an extraordinary opportunity for examining how we feel about life and death through the eyes of indigenous people. It is with love, not fear. It is with respect for ancestors, not grief.

Oaxaca welcomes you! If you are afraid, buy travel insurance. You should, anyway (smile). Wherever you go.

Over-the-top decorations throughout Oaxaca's centro.

Over-the-top decorations throughout Oaxaca’s centro.


Giving Thanks and Remembering: Happy Thanksgiving to All

In Mexico we say, gracias, thank you. We give thanks for el día de acción de gracias, which is how our Oaxaca friends greet us.  May your day with family and friends be stuffed with turkey, gratitude, peace, laughter and remembrance for those who came before you to give you life, wherever you are.


I hope whatever you choose to eat — guajolote, turkey, turducken or tofucken — be delicious and abundant. An abundant life is a blessing to appreciate and to help give to others.


Our mom was buried a week ago in Santa Cruz, California. She died peacefully on November 15, three months before her 100th birthday. Her life was long and meaningful. We are missing her. Today we celebrate and remember.


Today we will give special thanks for her life and ours.  Listen to I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me by Grammy Award-winning Cantor Doug Cotler. We will share memories, look at photos, play Scrabble — our mom’s favorite game, and how she honed her amazing vocabulary and helped us develop ours.  In the last six months she taught us the word risible and used it frequently. We all laughed.


I am here with my son, sister, brother and brother-in-law. This last gift from our mother was to bring us together for Thanksgiving, a first for all of us.


In the past weeks as I was with our mom, helping her, my sister and brother to ease her to end of life, I realized how important it is to be in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead. It was even more meaningful this year as I prepared to make the journey to California knowing what would come.


As I was with my mother as she made her journey, I realized this was another gift she gave me — how to leave us at peace and with dignity.


I was raised in a home where science was truth and mysticism was for the ultra-religious. Concrete proof was required to test all beliefs. Things change. I have learned from the Zapotecs who embrace the spirit world and blend it into a continuum of life and death. For me now, the ethereal is more acceptable than the concrete. Someone I knew once said, the dead don’t care. I believe they do. To know that they care is to acknowledge that we cared about and loved them.


Now, I have a different experience and I’m inclined to believe that our parent’s molecules are mingled with earth and sky, that the soul, the spirit, the essense of their being and those of our ancestors are with me forever. There is much I do not know about life and death.  Life is a mystery and death a destination.

I know that I will visit my mother and she will visit me each year when I build a memory altar with food, copal, candles and a sense of  life as mystery. But this won’t be the only time either.


I am thinking of creating a Day of the Dead memory and rituals program next year to examine the way Mexico honors and remembers the deceased. I want to contrast this with how we approach death and dying in the El Norte culture. If you like this idea, please let me know!


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.




The Children: Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico

Children fully take part in Day of the Dead here in Oaxaca, Mexico, too. They are an important part of the ritual and celebration. They go with family members to sit vigil by grave sites regardless of age. Death is an integral part of life here and not to be feared.

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On October 30 a children’s procession is held along the Andador Macedonio Alcala to honor the souls of the young ones who left this world too soon. Count Dracula and La Calavera Catrina are popular figures for costumes.

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I came across a group of five-year olds, their parents and grandparents, assembled in a city square waiting for the procession to begin. They were all from the same class at the same school.

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One grandparent made certain to tell me that they made the little one’s costume all from crepe paper. It was very elegant and disposable.

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Some of the costumes are handmade.  Others are store-bought and similar to what we might see on Halloween in the USA.

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Without a doubt, watching the children is a real treat and part of the allure of being here in Oaxaca on Day of the Dead. And, doesn’t this one say it all!