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.
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.