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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With each stop to visit, I make an offering of bread and fruit for the altar out of respect to the family and their tradition
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many 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.
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.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Mexico, Photography, Teotitlan del Valle, Travel & Tourism
Tagged cemetery, day of the dead, dia de los muertos, Mexico, Oaxaca, rituals, syncretism, Teotitlan del Valle, traditions, Zapotecs