Tag Archives: Halloween

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.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

The Oaxaca Xoxocotlan Day of the Dead Carnival

The streets of Xoxo (pronounced Ho-Ho) are packed with cars by 7:00 p.m. and it is difficult to find a place to park without having to walk miles to the cemetery.  I had hired a van and driver to take our small group to this village famous for its October 31 Day of the Dead “All Souls’ Day” celebration.  He led us through the streets lined with stalls where women were cooking on outdoor griddles (comals), where artists were displaying their paintings for sale, where street vendors were selling masks and candles and flowers and bread.  At the end of the street just before the cemetery entrance a brass band from the village was playing a medley of tunes.  We agreed on a meeting time in case we separated and entered the sacred space.  The walls of the cemetery (panteon) were high brick, maybe fourteen feet tall, covered with stucco.  As my eyes adjusted to the dark, the glow of candles illuminated the place and cast dancing shadows on the faces of men, women and children, vases of flowers, and headstones.

The ground was uneven as I groped my way around the valleys between the mounds of earth that differentiated each grave.  (I should have worn tennis shoes, I reminded myself.) As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see the family groups hovering around the resting places of their loved ones.  Yet, the scene was punctuated by visitors who looked like me climbing over and between tombs, trying to get a good camera angle. I heard English, German, Dutch, French and Spanish.  I was witness to an argumentative visitor who insisted to her travel guide that she was not drunk and was not leaving.  I can’t imagine that graves were not desecrated during this extravaganza and I continue to wonder how the locals really feel about their ritual becoming a tourist attraction.

In the center of the cemetery was a large, ancient structure, perhaps a church, whose walls were being held upright by timbers.  There was no roof and inside you could see the clear Oaxaca sky and the star field.  Perhaps it had tumbled during an earthquake and was never repaired.  Who knows?

This cemetery was small and I soon learned after asking that this was the village’s old cemetery (Panteon Viejo).  Donde esta el nuevo? I asked.  I had been to the Xoxocotlan Day of the Dead before but this particular cemetery was unfamiliar to me.  It did not have the energetic carnival atmosphere of the Xoxo that I was familiar with.  The new cemetery is about six blocks from here, a villager answered and pointed me in the general direction and I took off, making my way through a street festival that could only be produced in Mexico — crowds shoulder to shoulder, food stalls, games, music, beer and mescal, barbeque, rides and lottery.  The overhead lights looked like Christmas magnified.  I knew I was heading to the right place.  Then I heard the chanteuse belting out a soprano that could only cause one to shiver and I followed her voice.  She was backed up by an orchestra on a stage under a huge tent at the entrance to the New Cemetery.  The lane leading to the arched opening was lined with commercial vendors selling toys, lanterns, lights, masks, and other Day of the Dead accoutrements.

I entered the space to be greeted by huge crowds in Halloween-esque costumes, strolling mariachis, graves decorated with balloons, plastic pumpkin lanterns, flowers, teens and young adults on dates or prowling for them, and plenty of drink.  There was so much light from the multitude of candles and overhead lanterns that camera flash was hardly needed.

I returned to the Old Cemetery to find my group and asked them if they wanted the experience of seeing a counterpoint to the serenity of what we encountered at the original Xoxo site.  With a resounding YES, we made our way together.  Needless to say, it was a very late night and we didn’t get back to our hotel until after 1 p.m.  However, I know that the revelers will have outdone us and stayed up till dawn waiting for their loved ones to come back from the dead to visit one more year for one more day.