Tag Archives: dia de los muertos

Is Mexico’s Day of the Dead Like Halloween? Muertos Photos in Black and White.

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, 2015. Selenium filter ala Ansel Adams

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.

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.

But, this post takes a turn to Black and White Photography.

Four crosses mark this family plot where generations of people are buried 10 years apart.

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.

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.

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. All altars have some form of them.

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.

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 sculpture, cutting stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

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 fresh gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle.

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.

Preparing for Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead is coming soon. Festivities in Oaxaca will begin in the next few days, and people are now gathering what they need for home altars to honor their deceased loved ones:

  • palm branches to create an arch over the altar through which loved ones pass from the otherworld — a gateway to now
  • smokey copal incense that provides the aroma to guide the way
  • candles that burn continuously to offer light along the journey
  • fresh flowers, especially marigolds, a seasonal offering with a pungent aroma to guide the spirits
Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

  • bread, chocolate, fruit and nuts for the spirit visitors to eat
  • favorite beverages of those who have passed on and will return: hot chocolate, beer, mezcal, whiskey, coca-cola, Fanta orange, atole
  • framed photographs of those who have died (it wasn’t until the 70’s or 80’s, I’m told, that most locals had cameras to capture images)

 See Day of the Dead 5-Day Photo Challenge at Facebook

 

Oaxaca street parades will start on October 30.

On October 31, the Xoxocotlan panteon (cemetery) will host locals and tourists who come from around the world to experience the reverie and revelry of Muertos. I like to start at the old cemetery around mid-afternoon to be present at the magic hour of sunset.

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

On November 1, there are many cemetery festivities, at San Pablo Villa de Mitla in the morning and in the evening at the Oaxaca city Panteon, and in San Augustin Etla.

On November 2, in Teotitlan del Valle, the low-key ceremonies of honoring the dead begin with a mid-afternoon meal at home to ensure the dead return to their graves with full bellies. The villagers then accompany the spirits to the the cemetery (around 6 p.m. ) and sit with them through the night to be certain they are cared for and rest in peace.

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

On November 3, in San Antonino Castillo de Velasco, the flower growing village, holds their Day of the Dead celebrations after they have cut and sold cockscomb, marigolds, lilies and more to surrounding villages and city dwellers.

You might also want to add Santa Maria Atzompa to your itinerary.

Sand paintings, part of the tradition,  Muertos

Sand paintings, part of the tradition, Muertos

These are not created as tourist attractions but exist as part of ancient pre-Hispanic ritual in many parts of Mexico. Oaxaca has one of the most vibrant Day of the Dead celebrations.

Locals and seasoned Oaxaca travelers continue the search for the undiscovered Day of the Dead celebration where few tourists descend. The farther from the city, the more likely this is to occur.

Still life with marigolds, Teotitlan del Valle market

Still life with marigolds, Teotitlan del Valle market

I’m in North Carolina with my friend Hettie, and have with me photos of my parents and copal incense. I’ll start making my memory altar in the next few days. Meanwhile, my Teotitlan del Valle family will light incense and place marigolds at the gate to my home to welcome the spirits and guide them back under the shadow of Picacho.

 See Day of the Dead 5-Day Photo Challenge at Facebook

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

After I built my altar last year, our 99-1/2 year-old mom took a downward turn and I left Oaxaca for California. She died on November 15, 2016. I return to California next week to join my family to lay the headstone on her grave just before the anniversary of her death, a ritual that is part of my religious tradition.

This year, my altar will hold them both. I will sit and honor their lives.

Dorothy Schafitz Beerstein, April 16, 2013

Dorothy Schafitz Beerstein, April 16, 2013

 

 

 

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.

Best 91 Muertos-58

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.

Best 91 Muertos-57 Best 91 Muertos-28

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.

Best 91 Muertos-48

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.

Best 91 Muertos-27  Best 91 Muertos-39

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.

Best 91 Muertos-44

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.

Best 91 Muertos-41 Best 91 Muertos-30

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.

Best 91 Muertos-59 Best 91 Muertos-31

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.

Best 91 Muertos-34 Best 91 Muertos-55

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.

Best 91 Muertos-51

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.

Best 91 Muertos-60 Best 91 Muertos-63

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.

Best 91 Muertos-73

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.

Best 91 Muertos-68 Best 91 Muertos-64

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.

Best 91 Muertos-61

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.

Best 91 Muertos-66

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.

Best 91 Muertos-75 Best 91 Muertos-12

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.

Best 91 Muertos-65

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.

Best 91 Muertos-7

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.

Best 91 Muertos-5 Best 91 Muertos-6

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.

Best 91 Muertos-8 Best 91 Muertos-11

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.

Best 91 Muertos-71 Best 91 Muertos-72

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

Best 91 Muertos-9

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!

Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Guiding the Disfuntos Home

The bells in the Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca church tower start ringing on November 1 at 3:00 p.m. and continue all night and into the next day, November 2, giving the disfuntos (the visiting souls) the sound to follow home.

JoseChavez Altar1

They follow the trail of scent, sight and sound: marigold flowers, copal incense, simmering mole negro, chocolate, candlelight, mezcal, bread, music, bells. Home to visit loved ones who are still here on earth.

This 24-hour period is sacred and solemn. It is also festive and joyful. Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico is more than an all night party (as it has become for some). It is a time to reconnect emotionally and spiritually with departed family members and friends.

FullSizeRender Altar2

The 3:00 p.m. comida on November 2 in Teotitlan del Valle signals the moment when the disfuntos will take their favorite meal and then begin their return to the grave. Janet brings a plate of chicken with mole negro to the altar, her grandfather Jose’s favorite food. Bien rico!

The firecrackers or cohetes go off exactly at 3:00 p.m., too. At this moment, Dolores approaches the altar and says a prayer before the photograph of her mother, who died too young.

Best30TeotiMuertos-11

We raise our mezcal glasses in a Zapotec toast — chee-chee-bay-oh — salud, to health and long life. The CD player starts and music fills the altar room. Federico says this tune, Dios Nunca Muere — God never dies — is always played to guide the difuntos. It soothes them. Federico says it is played just after a person dies and at gravesite before the burial. It is the song to signal the end of each Dia de los Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle. It is a song about the pain of the homeless.

Do you have an altar? he asks me.

Yes, I say. It’s for our father. There are all the pre-requisites: fruit, nuts, bread, chocolate, mezcal, marigolds, beer and candles. (There are no religious symbols.)

Good, he says. Even though your father is buried in the United States, he will come to visit you here. The ancient souls who were buried in the campo many years ago are also happy they have a place to return to. It’s good you have an altar, he says.

Who am I to say what is or isn’t true? Memory and continuity are powerful and life is a mystery.

Best30TeotiMuertos-20  Best30TeotiMuertos-4

The tombs contain the bones of past ancestors. See the photo above left. There are four grave markers. That means there are four family members who are buried in this tomb. This is an ancient Zapotec tradition that continues today.

Best30TeotiMuertos-23 Best30TeotiMuertos-26

I go to the cemetery an hour before dark to capture the last light of day. I don’t think the Panteon has ever been as beautiful. Fresh flowers, fruit and nuts decorate the tombs. Families begin to gather and sit with loved ones as they return to the underworld. They nibble on snacks and drink beer and mezcal.

Best30TeotiMuertos-15

Best30TeotiMuertos-29

The volunteer cemetery committee meets in the chapel and chants an ancient Zapotec song, mournful. It permeates, carries through the small graveyard. A wind picks up. The disfuntos are gathering to return.

Best30TeotiMuertos-27

Visitors come with cameras, accompanied by tour guides. They are respectful of this space. They are prepared well. There are many more this year than last. Locals say this is good for Teotitlan del Valle.  People will come and know our culture. They will appreciate the fine wool tapestries we weave here. Ojala!

Best30TeotiMuertos-19

Each gravesite is an altar of love and respect for those who came before. All generations take part. Sometimes children bring games or a book to read until the light fades. Everyone sits, some all night, to assure their loved ones rest easy.

Best30TeotiMuertos-31

Best30TeotiMuertos-25Many religious and spiritual traditions have a day of remembrance set aside to honor the deceased. We light candles. We say prayers. We may read a poem or meditate. We connect with the person who is physically gone from our lives. I don’t know of a warmer, more personal and family centric celebration of life and death than Day of the Dead. It helps soothe the fear of loss with the hopefulness of reconnection.

Best30TeotiMuertos-9 Best30TeotiMuertos-24

Zapotec people tell me that what they practice is a blend of Catholicism and ancient ritual that pre-dates the Spanish Conquest. Zapotecs are more inclined toward their spiritual roots. Want to know more? See meaning of syncretism. Most of the celebrations here take place at home rather than in the church, except for marriage and baptism.

Best30TeotiMuertos-13 Best30TeotiMuertos-21a