Teotitlan del Valle Celebrates Day of the Dead–Photography Expedition

In the Oaxaca village of Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos is serene, low-key and beautiful. Here, it is celebrated at the cemetery on all Soul’s Day, November 2.  At home, families light the copal incense burner to help the spirits of their loved ones find their way back to the grave.  Then, they gather for a meal of traditional mole negro with chicken, rice, plenty of tortillas, beer and mezcal.  At about 5:30 p.m. they make their way to the panteon for mass and to sit with the spirits of their ancestors.

The altar is a central part of each home. During Muertos, visitors come with offerings to the dead:  chocolate, beer, candles, mescal, and bread. Photos of the loved ones who have died are prominently displayed along with their favorite foods.

The copal incense burner is a mystical part of the celebration.  The church bells toll exactly at 3 p.m.  Federico lights the incense.  He and Dolores tend the fire to make certain it doesn’t go out, using a hand-held fan woven with plant fibers.  The copal flames, aroma of incense, and smoke create a space of reverence and reflection.

Villagers come to the cemetery with brooms, buckets of flowers, the favorite fruits, nuts, and beverages of their loved ones, and begin to clean the grave sites and decorate them.  Then they may sit in meditative prayer.  Or, entire extended families may gather with a case of beer and the evening for them is festive and celebratory.  The range of emotions in this small space is huge:  from laughter and music to tears and keening.


There was far less ambient light and fewer candles at the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery than there was in Xoxocotlan.   So it was very dark — difficult conditions for night photography even when I opened the aperture to its widest setting with the camera speed to 1600.  I switched to manual mode but couldn’t see clearly through the viewfinder to even see if the shot was in focus!  This was the best I could do!

Grainy and fuzzy.  But don’t you love that purple sky?  It was pitch black out and I could barely see those figures.  Hopefully this gives you the sense of place.

Here, at the entrance to the cemetery the street light provided illumination on this old wooden cross.



And the tuba offered a mirror onto the world along with a self-portrait.



Neighborhoods have their own altars positioned at crossroads where people travel most. A green vase from Atzompa holds fresh marigolds, the aromatic flower of this season.

On November 2, all our our Day of the Dead Photography Expedition participants spent the day with a host family, shared the meal, and then accompanied them to the cemetery.  Tonight, we have invited our host families to our Best of Week show that will feature photographs from Teotitlan del Valle.


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