Reflections: Oaxaca Day of the Dead 2022

The intensity of organizing three Day of the Dead programs — a culture tour, a writing workshop, a folk art tour– in Oaxaca this October and November gave me little time to adequately reflect upon and write about how Day of the Dead is spiritually satisfying, evolving and changing in Oaxaca. Now, back in Northern New Mexico until the New Year, I have more time to think and write about the experiences of visiting cemeteries, reflecting on memory and loss, and describing how village celebrations take us deep into Zapotec culture and tradition. Why? Its downright COLD here and having gone from eighty degrees Fahrenheit in Oaxaca to a chilly low of eleven degrees, complete with snow on the ground and atop nearby mountains, I am inclined to hunker down and stay indoors. Saving grace: New Mexico sunshine that keeps the spirits elevated and a glow of optimism alive.

Oaxaca is a mecca for Day of the Dead celebrants, now attracting hordes of visitors from around the world. On Oaxaca streets, I heard German, Italian, English, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Chinese. On the evening of November 2, when Zapotec residents of Teotitlan del Valle accompany the spirits of their deceased ancestors back to their gravesites, sit quietly to honor their memories, perhaps having a picnic supper with a mezcal toast, a group of Korean tourists intent on capturing the moments, approached with heavy-duty telescopic lenses, pointing cameras into sacred spaces. I reminded our travelers to be respectful, to ask permission for photos, and to not gawk. Gawking is not culturally responsible tourism.

At strategically located corners throughout the Historic Center of the city, local entrepreneurs set up face-painting stations. For $150 and much more, one can become a Calavera Freda, complete with a ghostly appearance and head topped with a fake floral crown. We also heard of families offering authentic experiences at the cost of $200 per person to join in a family meal followed by a cemetery visit. Those of us who live in Oaxaca applaud this creative approach to earning extra income, particularly when visitors are willing to pay any price, it seems, to participate in a more intimate experience.

We heard tell of another scene, this more private, whereby only those invited could buy a $250 ticket to a secret venue in Santiago Matatlan, Mezcal Capital of the World. You have to know someone who knows someone to get in. In addition to the ticket cost, arriving in costume is mandatory. A van picks-up the party-goers at a secret meeting point in Oaxaca city and takes them to an undisclosed location where mezcal flows freely well into the night, and a frenzied dance-party Burning Man-style ensues, entertaining revelers.

We eschew these experiences, preferring a more culturally quiet and sympathetic approach to the holiday. This is one important reason we are based in the villages. What I did notice this year in our Teotitlan del Valle cemetery, is that no visitors appeared wearing face make-up like they did last year. I also noticed that more visitors were there under the auspices of local families, hovering with them around their family gravesites. There were more villagers sitting around the cemetery this year than last. Perhaps, this is because our group arrived earlier at four-thirty in the afternoon. Most of us departed by six just as the light was waning. Yes, there were tourist vans, but fewer and smaller than before. We did hear that the village authorities had intervened to discourage large groups.

When we went with Arturo to his mother’s grave in San Pablo Villa de Mitla the day before, we arrived in late morning. At noon, the difuntos (deceased) arrive, announced by the cohetes (firecrackers). This is the signal to leave and accompany the spirits back home. There were very few foreign visitors here and participating felt so special. At the home altar, Arturo said a prayer to his mother, lit the copal incense and invited her to partake of special pre-Hispanic foods on display at the altar–chocolate, tortillas (corn), squash, water, chile, honey, peanuts, pulque, beans, limes –all native to Mexico.

(Let me introduce you to Arturo Hernandez, an outstanding weaver who has gained worldwide recognition, and invited to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. He has been a good personal friend for many years)

How do you know her soul will follow you home, someone in our group asks.

I ask her in Zapotec to come with me. I feel her with me in my heart. I talk to her. I let her know our happiness and our challenges. I also ask her to remember me and welcome me when it is my time to join her. She is inside me and it brings us both joy to have this day together, Arturo says.

The base of this altar is constructed with three arches or openings, representing three stages–birth, life, death. They are replicas of the arches found at the nearby Mitla archeological site. Mitla, once known as Mictlan, meaning Place of the Dead or Underworld. This was a major Zapotec burial site for royalty. With the Spanish conquest, the openings were renamed to become God, the Son of God and the Holy Ghost.

After the altar ceremony and explanation of this important tradition, we followed Arturo to the al fresco dining area where his wife Marta had prepared a delicious meal of mole negro, chicken, rice, tamales and nopal salad for us, followed by my favorite dessert, nicuatole, a corn pudding. Buen provecho!

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