Today is the day, November 2, that the souls of the departed visit their loved ones here on earth. Our Oaxaca Day of the Dead Culture Tour is immersed in the traditions of the small weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle. We have also spent time in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, the Zapotec City of the Dead, with weaver Arturo Hernandez and his family. We have come to know the deeper meaning of Muertos intimately by sharing this pre-Hispanic tradition with local families.
On October 31 we went to the Teotitlan del Valle village market to buy the decorations for the altar we would construct together in our B&B. We made a list of the important altar elements and divided them up for the group to get: flowers, chocolate, Day of the Dead bread, candles, nuts, fruit, copal incense. We would also make five bundles to give to the families we would visit over the next couple of days.
The altar is an offering to the deceased. It is a way to remember them and to honor the tradition of welcoming them back to visit us for a 24-hour period between All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. The altar is a symbol of the continuum of life — birth to death and it is thought to be a circular spiritual event that is unending. Life begins and ends. Without death there is no life.
The copal incense, the fragrant seasonal flowers, the aroma of hot chocolate and bread, the light of the candles, all serve to bring the difuntos (souls) home. Strewn marigold petals are the spirits of loved ones making their way into the home altar room. The candles and aromas guide them so they don’t get lost.
October 31 was a busy market day. Hug bags of bread loaves and homemade chocolate were tucked under the arms of shoppers. Palm fronds will make an arch over the altar that represents the gateway between earth and the spirit world. Tradition is to visit relatives whose loved ones have passed and bring fruit, flowers, candles, chocolate, mezcal as a tribute to them and the family. People here need lots of bread and chocolate.
In exchange, the family being visited will serve guests a cup of hot chocolate, a piece of bread for dipping in it, and a place to site by the altar to reminisce. Family relationships are central and people take the time to nurture this. A visit can often extend to an hour or longer.
Today, at 5 p.m., as the sun sets, we will accompany the spirits back to the cemetery so they are assured of finding their way. and to be comfortable with their passage from here to there. We will sit with them there in reverence and attend to the mystery of life. Our group will spend this day with Ernestina who will give us chocolate making and tamale making demonstrations. We will have lunch with her and the difuntos of her family, and then accompany her to the family gravesite at the cemetery.
It is a privilege to be able to share this observance in a traditional Oaxaca village where people attend to the rituals they have grown up with, retelling the stories of their ancestors.