Tag Archives: Zapotec

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.


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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Death in the Family: Oaxaca, Mexico

It’s quiet. The sky is covered over with a blanket of thin clouds. Birdsong accentuates the space. Though it’s the end of June just before the solstice, the morning is chill. A breath of wind rustles the guaje tree branches outside the kitchen window. I need a wool wrap. Breakfast is hot oatmeal with goat yoghurt and fresh mango. I am conscious of each bite. Conscious of my mouth chewing, my tongue curling around my teeth, the swallow of sustenance. It is quiet. I feel the solitude. Perhaps this is the morning calm before the sky opens in an eruption of sun and heat, later to be soothed by afternoon rain.

She died yesterday. It’s as if she is waiting to take flight, her soul soaring skyward to the heavens, as her body is prepared by loved ones for burial before the procession to the cemetery. The street in front of her house is covered in a raised white tent, a shelter and a blessing on all who exit and enter. It is a sign to know she has passed to where the gods will take her. This is how it’s done here in the Zapotec village where I live in southern Mexico.

We know other life cycle events by the red and blue striped tents that cover patios and courtyards and streets. These are the happy times: baptisms, quinceaneras, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Life here is a constant celebration.

Early summer. Just plowed fields wait to receive indigenous seeds: corn, beans and squash. The earth is moist with rain, fertile volcanic soil is enriched with manure plowed under over centuries. Crops rotate. Fields go fallow. The dry season comes in winter to welcome snow birds. The rainy season cycles around again.

The band plays in her courtyard. It is a dirge. Familiar. Known to all. A call to the dead and those still living to pay attention, pay homage, give thanks, pause, embrace family and mourn. I climb the stairs to the rooftop to look out over the valley and the street where she lived. I didn’t know her well, only in passing. She was a slight woman, quiet, mother of eight, who battled diabetes for the past ten years and died well before sixty.LevineMuertos NormaBest11Xoxo10312013-6

Church bells ring. Sobering. Somber. Soon the procession will form, led by a drummer, followed by the band playing the dirges. Pallbearers will carry her casket, followed by women whose heads are covered in black rebozos. They holdy flowers and candles as they likely did centuries ago. They will walk slowly, thoughtfully, carefully, one foot before the other, through the cobbled streets to the cemetery where she is buried today.

The family will sit in mourning for a week, receive visitors who bring bread, chocolate, flowers, candles and condolences. A black bow will cover the doorway to the house. The bow will stay there forever, until it disintegrates in the wind, rain, sun, over time.

In nine months, her grave will be dedicated with a cross, placed in front of those who passed before her. Until then, it will be unmarked. When they put her to rest in the earth, they will move aside the bones of her ancestors to make a space for her. Her soul will return to visit loved ones during Day of the Dead each year following the scent of cempazuchitl and copal. May she rest in peace.

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In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Only Some Call It Carnaval

The Monday after Easter in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, begins a five-day ritual practice about sustaining community. This is an ancient tradition that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of 1521. Some call it Carnaval (aka Mardi Gras) but it isn’t. It is called Baile de los Viejos or Dance of the Old Men, according to my interviews with local Zapotecs who know the oral history and culture because they live here and learned the ancient lore from their parents and grandparents.

Today and tomorrow in Teotitlan del Valle, the procession starts around 4 p.m. local time (5 p.m. in Oaxaca) followed by the Dance of the Old Men in the Municipio Plaza.

Carnaval is a pre-Lenten celebration that we know all too well from the festivities in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. It is rooted in a Roman celebration that extended throughout Europe during the middle ages.


Dance of the Old Men, the Viejitos, is a way for each of the five sections of the village of Teotitlan del Valle to give anonymous feedback to its elected officials, the president and the committee.  It is a self-governing mechanism that gives voice to each person in the community that is transmitted by the masked actors who represent them. The mime is a ritual about giving feedback, paying honor and tribute to leaders and keeping communication open for honest dialog.



It’s true that the Dance has taken on a more carnival atmosphere, complete with food and drink and ice cream vendors. Children participate in the masked dancing and there is a frivolity in the air. But, this is a serious practice that ensures cohesion and lets the leaders know how well they are doing, if they are meeting expectations and where they may be falling short. Humility is rewarded here. Arrogance is not. Leaders are reminded that they are in their voluntary and elected roles at the behest of the people.


This is a self-governing model for Mexico’s Usos y Costumbres villages, many of which are in Oaxaca.

The generation of grandfathers and grandmothers want their children to know that this is not Carnaval. It is an important, ancient Zapotec practice about how to live together peacefully, with self-governance. Let’s do our part to help perpetuate the accurate story.