Most tourists come to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead to immerse themselves in the October 31 cemetery extravaganza in Xoxocotlan (ho-ho-coht-lahn), a suburb about 15 minutes from the historic center of Oaxaca City. The locals refer to it as Xoxo (ho-ho). The Nuevo Panteon (new cemetery) is the scene for strolling musicians, graveside picnics, good cheer encouraged by the imbibing of local mescal followed by a beer chaser, plenty of costumed children, the heady aroma of marigold flowers in urns and petals next to and atop the resting place of loved ones. My focus was on the old cemetery.
The Viejo Panteon (old cemetery) is a marked contrast. It is much smaller and very old. I imagine the early friars built this now crumbling adobe church in the 16th or 17th century. The foundation stones and surviving frescoes held up by heavy pine reinforcements tell me this. The atmosphere is serene, subdued, reverent and mystical.
Then there are the masked and costumed children. Immigrants who have lived in the U.S. and returned to Mexico are introducing Halloween as a Muertos overlay. Youngsters trailed me everywhere with palms open, arms outstretched, asking for a Halloween treat. I took photos instead and they were happy. La Catrina, skeletal symbol of Muertos, appears below in the flesh.
The technical difficulties of shooting at night are immense. As a newly initiated night photographer I have come to appreciate the benefits of using a tripod. Imagine stepping around grave sites on dirt paths that are, at most, six inches wide, obstructed by burning candles and smokey copal incense. The huge urns of flowers are balanced as precariously as me.
Then, there is the challenge of finding level ground in a cemetery that is at least 400 years old and adjusting camera settings in darkness. Next time I will bring the miner’s flashlight!
We arrived in Xoxo at 4:30 p.m. to give us the magic light at end of day. The shadows were spectacular. Very few people were there. Older women were beginning to arrive with huge bundles of marigolds and long beeswax tapers. We could get very close! Of course, we always ask permission to take photographs, and 90% of the people we ask always say yes. It is an ethical decision by the photographer. Long lenses give us the freedom of a photojournalist to roam and shoot without connection. And, the connection can always lead to something more extraordinary. We believe it is our ethical responsibility to ask.
This year the Oaxaca Symphony Orchestra moved inside the walls under a big tent at the entrance to perform works by Mozart, Bach and Handel complete with oratorios. The music was ethereal and soothing.
Since we arrived at 4:30 p.m. by the time 10:30 came around most of us were ready to go back to our hotel. More people were coming in than were leaving and there must have been thousands in the new cemetery. Jenny, who speaks fluent Spanish, stayed on until 2:30 a.m. and hailed a taxi on her own to get back to the hotel. Yes, once again, perfectly safe!
Join us in February for Oaxaca Carnivale Photography Arts Workshop or in July for Oaxaca Photography Workshop: Market Towns & Artisan Villages.