Day of the Dead on the Ocotlan Highway 2023

Oaxaca City is at the apex of three valleys: Tlacolula, Etla and Ocotlan. Each is separated by a mountain range, so you have to go through the city to get to each. Yesterday, a group of 12 gathered in the city to explore some of the artisans along the Ocotlan Highway where villages specialize in pottery, textiles, and alebrijes.

First, we stopped in San Bartolo Coyotepec where we know a very accomplished and traditional potter who works in traditional black clay. Her studio is not commercial and is off-the-beaten-path. Adelina is deeply rooted in the centuries old tradition of clay-making and her family is one of the most talented in the village. She is skilled not only in making decorative pottery, but also utilitarian pieces that are fired at much higher temperature to make them waterproof. If you missed this special Day of the Dead Tour, you might want to register for our Ocotlan Highway Tour offered any time during the year.

P.S. Not too late to join us November 1 to go to the Mitla cemetery and learn about how Day of the Dead is celebrated in this traditional Zapotec burial site. Send an email immediately if you want to come!

The black pottery is a ceremonial pre-Hispanic Zapotec tradition that is part of Day of the Dead. The waterproof jars are used for burials to ensure that the disfuntos have water to drink as they make their journey to the underworld. Traditionally, the tombs were in family homes, and many relics of this ancient period have been found as people build and add onto their houses.

Adelina explains that artisans were buried with their tools so they could continue to make their craft after they pass to the underworld. She says that the skulls remind us that we are only bones and skeletons. While the Spanish conquerors said that skeletons were evil, the Zapotecs believe this is a natural, normal part of life, and that life is a transition to living in the underworld. We celebrate death as we celebrate life, she says. We celebrate our our past and our ancestors. Her grandparents told her, as they aged to 100 years, that they are going to a new world. This gave the children tranquility and peace of mind.

Day of the Dead is a time to celebrate and remember. We are not sad, she says. The essence of the person comes back to visit us and enjoy the foods and drink we have put on the altar for them. For Adelina, it is important to preserve indigenous pre-Hispanic traditions.

Our next stop was a whirlwind tour of the Friday Ocotlan Market. Today, it was packed with local vendors selling all the decor and foods needed for the Day of the Dead celebrations. Home altars are a central part of the celebration and the centerpieces are marigolds, cockscomb, bread, chocolate, candles, and mezcal.

Before lunch, we made a visit to master folk art potter Don Jose Garcia and his wife Teresita. We have known them for twenty years. Now, they have many young helpers, and their children have joined in making these whimsical figures, many of them life-size. It is always a joy to see them again in San Antonino Castillo Velasco on the Ocotlan Highway.

Lunch was in the copal forest and plant sanctuary at Almu, in San Martin Tilcajete. This is a cocina de humo — an outdoor smoke kitchen, where all natural, organic ingredients are used. Almost all of us had either mole coloradito or mole estofado. It was the best!

At Almu, pottery from Mogote is also featured. You can buy plants from the nursery, too.

And, finally before heading back to the city, we spent the last hours of the afternoon with Waldo Hernandez, owner/founder of Alebrijes Casa Don Juan in San Martin Tilcajete. This tradition of carving copal wood into mythical, whimsical, fantasy figures that are brightly painted with intricate, pre-Hispanic designs is a recent innovation, about forty years old. Often, these are figures that combine the parts of different animals and reptiles. Some even combine animal and human forms.

The village has hundreds of wood carving studios. Eric chose to visit here because he worked with Waldo when he was the managing director of Andares del Arte Popular folk art gallery. Waldo is known for his intricate painting designs and finest quality admired by collectors.

Waldo shared with us that Day of the Dead is a very quiet celebration in San Martin Tilcajete. Visitors are not allowed to enter the cemetery. It is a time of reflection and remembrance to honor the lives of loved ones whose spirits return to visit family. He reminds us that visitors are more than welcome to celebrate at the grand fiesta in the village for Carnival, which is Fat Tuesday, before Lent.

The copal wood is carved soft, then it dries for a year on the shelves. Usually cracks develop and they are repaired with copal plugs, then cut, sanded smooth, sealed, and then painted. The studio has its specialists — carvers and painters.

It’s Muertos time in Oaxaca! The traffic is crazy. The streets are filled with parades of costumed revelers, bands, and visitors who crowd the sidewalks. It took us an hour and a half — almost twice as long — to make the return trip from San Martin Tilcajete to town. Whew. Sleeping with ear plugs is de rigueur.

Now, I’m in the quiet of Teotitlan del Valle, happy to be home.

P.S. Not too late to join us November 1 to go to the Mitla cemetery and learn about how Day of the Dead is celebrated in this traditional Zapotec burial site. Send an email immediately if you want to come!

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