Day of the Dead 2021, Teotitlan del Valle Cemetery: Cultural Sensitivity

Preamble: Our Day of the Dead Cultural Study Tour ended on November 4. Everyone tested negative for Covid to exit Mexico and re-enter the USA. We were all very relieved AND we practiced all safety measures during our time in the city and in Teotitlan del Valle — masks in all public spaces (even outdoors), social distancing, hand-sanitizer. Every artisan we visited (except one) was double-vaccinated. We won’t be visiting that artisan again — they were not disclosing! In Oaxaca, vaccine roll-out is slow and no one under 30 has been able to get the vaccine yet. It is a problem of availability and distribution.

I want to talk about how Day of the Dead has changed in Oaxaca and the villages. Years ago, when I first arrived in 2005 and for a decade after, when I went to the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery to participate in Day of the Dead, I was the only non-villager. I always went with local friends at sunset to be a part of the experience and I was mindful to keep as low a profile as possible, even though I knew I would stand out solely based on my skin color. I wore the traditional apron used by village women, came with offerings for the grave: flowers, oranges, chocolate, candles. Paid my respects by joining to sit quietly, mindful of my place as an outsider.

Then, and up until a few years ago, the grave sites of loved ones were surrounded by large gatherings of family members sitting, talking, taking sips of mezcal, placing last minute candles and flowers on the tomb mounds. It was a solemn and mystical time of tradition and respect. One that I hold close to my heart in meaning and symbolism for the circuity of life in pre-Hispanic culture here.

Last minute decorations. photo by Tiina Antiila

Now, it is different. Much different. I could see it coming even by 2016, when tour companies began to add the Teotitlan de Valle cemetery to its list of stops on their itineraries. Perhaps the mezcal culture has influenced this change, too, as drinking and enjoying Oaxaca cuisine has attracted the hedonists to experience an intense 5-day party weekend. I recall a National Geographic Photography Tour coming to the cemetery maybe in 2017 or 2018, huge cameras with impressive lenses in tow, not asking permission, setting up tripods and photos just a foot or two away. Now, with cell phone cameras, it is not as intrusive, but another phenomenon is happening.

Tomb with favorite foods, beverages of deceased

The atmosphere is more like Mardi Gras as face-painted revelers from the city embark from buses, vans and taxis. They are all foreigners, mostly from the USA. The cemetery is overwhelmed by them. I noticed that fewer locals were here this year.

Excavated tomb waiting for burial. Ancestor bones in bags will be reburied with corpse.

I asked my friend Natividad if she goes to the cemetery for Muertos. No, she said. It is like a fiesta. I don’t like it. I go another time, when it is quieter and I can sit without being disturbed. A widespread sentiment here, I think.

Sand painting carpet in chapel

As I sat with Norma Gutierrez and her daugher Lizet at her husband and father’s gravesite to remember Juvenal, age 52 who died of covid in a San Diego hospital, a face-painted woman approached to ask to take a photo (at least she asked). Remember Juvenal? We raised $3,000 to send his body home.

Norma nodded an okay. I looked at her and said, you can say no. (The circumstance felt invasive to me.) Her eyes said, Really? I can say no? So, she turned and said, No, and the woman walked away. This is a culture of being in agreement and it is a culture where women do not speak up as contrarians. So, when people do not object, it does not mean they are comfortable or in agreement.

If course you can take my photo, she says proudly

The flowers and graves were magnificent. A stark contrast to the predominantly Anglo dominance of the cemetery. I could not bring myself to photograph people sitting with their loved ones. I took photos of flowers and tomb altars. I wonder if I should continue to bring our small group of culturally sensitive travelers here in the future. Are we adding to the problem? Even as I prepared them with information about cultural meaning and cemetery protocol, it is difficult to not be a part of the cultural impact. We went to the cemetery accompanied by Ernestina and paid respects to her father Jose. I advised them to disperse and not walk around in intimidating groups larger than two or three people. We were all masked. It was 4:30 p.m. Still two hours of remaining daylight. Most of us left by 6:00 p.m.

Ernestina placing fruit on her father’s grave. Our group observes the tradition.
The band plays on

In the cemetery chapel, the volunteer committee that oversees cemetery maintenance and religious traditions, chanted blessings in Zapotec and Spanish, kneeling before the altar. Outside, the village band started playing Sousa-like music. Visitors planted themselves on benches drinking beer and mezcal, while others began to dance vigorously. Some were picnicking on the grass, pulling out their mezcal bottles from backpacks.

I went to visit the grave of my friend Lupita, who died of breast cancer at age 48, four years ago. I was heartbroken and went home.

The village depends on tourism. Visitors keep weavers and restauranteurs in business. It is up to the village leadership to decide.

No explanation needed

It is difficult for me to suspend judgment. I ask myself, Is this cultural appropriate or insensitivity? What does it mean to be authentic? Does authentic mean to keep things the way they have always been and to prevent change from happening? Change is inevitable and who am I to say that we are are experiencing cultural degradation? It is up to the people who live here to decide.

As we sat around breakfast the next morning, I asked our group about their impressions. Here is what they said:

  • I was offended by the dancing. It seemed so out of place.
  • I’m tired of the commercial creep in the USA. That’s why I came here, for something more meaningful.
  • The face painting was out of place.
  • So many visitors were not wearing masks. I tried not to be judging and I noticed that in myself.
  • I walked by families sobbing from their loss surrounded by revelers. It was a real disconnect.
  • I saw outsiders going to graves, laying down flowers to express their sympathy.
  • I was conflicted — I wanted to be there and found it very uncomfortable.
  • I was angry at the tourists. Then, I was angry at myself to being a tourist and I had to walk away.
  • It was more powerful for me because we had all the preparation leading up to the cemetery visit.
  • It’s creeping commercialization. Will the town speak up?
  • Most of the graves were decorated in advance earlier in the day, so I suppose that’s when most of the villagers were there.
  • It was mixed for me. It was a privilege to be there, but I felt like an invader to private, sacred time. This is an intimate, family time.
  • The city is packed with tourists looking for smaller venues.

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Norma with co-leader and godson Eric Chávez Santiago, Teotitlan del Valle

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