Tag Archives: traditions

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.




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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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.

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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.



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.


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!


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-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.

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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.

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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.


Rosa and Abraham’s Wedding in Teotitlan del Valle: Let’s Party

It’s been a week since Abraham and Rosa got married. With this last and final post about the wedding, I get to relive the day. I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter III: The Wedding Party

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Weddings in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca can be grand affairs that include a sumptuous multi-course fiesta dinner complete with music that goes on for hours and this one was no exception. Over 350 people packed into the home courtyard of Abraham’s uncle, a very gracious host.


I’ve been to village weddings where as many as 700 people have been seated and served by a minion of family members and friends who have been cooking, serving and cleaning up for days before and after.

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A traditional Teotitlan del Valle wedding can last three days and nights, with lots of dancing, drinking, talking, cooking and eating, continuing long after the bride and groom have left for their miel de luna (honeymoon).


Abraham and Rosa’s wedding was different. The celebration started and ended on the same day. But, I bet the cleaning up part lasted as long!

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As soon as we were all seated, guests honored the married couple by presenting their gifts, table by table. Matched sets of dishes, cooking utensils and vessels appeared as did many blenders, perfect for making salsas, soups and fruit juices. As soon as the presentations were completed, dinner was served.

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For Rosa and Abraham’s wedding feast, the seated dinner featured consommé de borrego, a rich lamb broth, followed by an entrée of barbecue lamb, salad, rice and noodle salad. The 15 lambs came from Rancho Juarez and brought down the mountain in a truck to where they were slaughtered. They were cooked in cauldrons of spicy tomato broth set into hot coal lined, covered earthen pits. They simmered overnight until they were fall-off-the-bone tender.


The broth was then mixed with cooked corn, peas, garbanzo and green beans, and diced tomatoes served as consommé accompanied by fresh made soft tortillas and a large, crispy pizza-sized tortilla called a tlayuda.


There was plenty of water, chilled hibiscus tea and horchata to drink. There was not the usual bottles of mezcal and cases of beer presented as tribute gifts and then opened for consumption that dominates the usual Mexican wedding parties.


The music was classical, orchestral and easy listening. Without liquor and dancing, no one overindulged, got out of hand, passed out or left early to sleep it off.


Fun happens in other ways. There are games. After dinner, tables are folded and chairs lined up to clear a space in the courtyard center. With the bride on one end and the groom on the other, each standing on a wooden chair, him holding on to the trail of her veil, her grabbing tight onto a pole, it appeared that the goal was to see who would topple off their chair first.

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This is not a wedding game I’m familiar with, but it was a lot of fun and we all enjoyed watching what would happen next.

A new game? Body Toss.

Abraham lost his balance, fell off the chair (or was pulled off) …


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Whew, that took a lot of energy from the young men who guaranteed that Abraham would have a night to remember. After the body toss, they needed to rest!


Who’s Getting Married Next?

Time for the throwing of the bride’s bouquet. All the single young women gathered as Rosa tossed her flowers over her head to the assembled group behind her. Good catch, Gloria! You must be next.

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Yes. Bobbing for Apples.

After the bouquet and tie toss, married couples were asked to participate in a game of bobbing for apples. We all got a kick out of which pair could eat through a dangling apple first. It was hard for me to focus with all the moving around.

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Let them eat cake! And, they did.

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There were four or five tiers of wedding cake, make with pecans and topped with a yummy cream. The grand finale of the day. Abraham and Rosa did what was expected — feed each other cake. Another happy moment to bring a close to an incredible day.

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As the bridesmaids unpacked green glazed Atzompa pottery for the bride and groom to give to each guest as a remembrance of the occasion, I thought about what a beautiful and satisfying day this was.

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I was especially gratified to be able to capture most of it with photographs that Rosa and Abraham will have for their personal album. Perhaps someday they will show them to their grandchildren and I will be there with them in spirit.

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Festivals and Faces: Chiapas Photography Workshop–January 2016


Day of the Dead, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Gate to Heaven Closed on Sunday

In Teotitlan del Valle, loved ones who come back to visit their families from the great beyond on Day of the Dead, usually arrive on November 1 and depart on November 2.  This year it’s different. They get an extra day on earth and leave on Monday, November 3.


Why? Because the gate to heaven is always closed on Sunday, explains a local as we sit next to him in the small cemetery chapel with his compadres.  They are waiting to receive thanks and blessings from community leaders who approach them and the altar with offerings of refreshment and a hand raised in salute.


The local man is one of the volunteer group that guards the cemetery, walking among the tombs to be certain that no souls, either living or dead, are in distress.


Again, I arrive early, ahead of the crowds, while there is still at least an hour of daylight remaining. The cemetery is brimming with lilies, marigolds, cocks comb, gladiolas.  The scent of copal mingles with wild marigold. Graves are cleaned, topped with fresh earth, quartered oranges, pecans, walnuts, apples.  There is an occasional bottle of unopened beer or mezcal atop each mound.


As the day fades, families arrive and light candles. Some unpack a picnic supper. Some sit quietly alone. Some are mother and son. Some are multi-generational. We meet young men on vacation from work in the United States to pay respects to their grandparents.  This is my village, one says in English. I was born here. 

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At least two bands are playing. The atonal sound of the younger group is endearing and seems to complement the duality of both this solemn and joyous occasion.

Portrait Photography Workshop coming up at the end of January 2015!

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Lots of people greet us, welcome us, invite us to join them in a sip of mezcal, offer us fresh oranges and beer. When I ask if I can take their photo, yes, is usually the answer. Where are you from? they ask. Carolina del Norte, I say. Welcome to Teotitlan del Valle, they say. I feel lucky to be among them.

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This year, it seems as if the village cemetery is especially vibrant with color.  I hear that Teotitlan del Valle wants to become a Pueblo Magico.  The paths are paved in the cemetery now, making it easier to move among the graves. The space is well-lit and tidy. It seems there are more flowers than ever before.

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Here, it is not like the Xoxocotlan extravaganza, and if you come expecting that, you will be sorely disappointed. Being here is a soothing, quiet, reflective and traditional experience.

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Why are there multiple crosses at the head of grave sites? Families have specific plots and every ten years a tomb can be reused for someone who has just passed. The bones of the antecedents are removed, cleaned and returned to the tomb alongside the next one to be buried there. It is not unusual to see three or four crosses planted one in front of the other representing the tomb’s occupants.

2014DOTDTeoti-23 And, of course, not only the dead get hungry! Vendors sit at the entrance with tasty snack foods. And, the band plays on.

2014DOTDTeoti-26My son is visiting from California. As we move together through the cemetery, we compare traditions here and in the United States, how we want our remains to be handled after death, periods of mourning, celebrations of life and the practice of laying markers. In Teotitlan a marker is placed on the tomb nine months after burial.

2014DOTDTeoti-25 2014DOTDTeoti-18Day of the Dead is an opportune time to talk about what is considered taboo and sad in our western culture. The celebration in Mexico is a religious syncretism of pre-Hispanic mystical tradition and Spanish Catholicism. It is unique and there is much to learn by participating.

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