Last year, 2022, Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle was a frenzy. Big tour buses and mini-vans each holding 24 to 36 passengers unloaded face-painted visitors in front of our cemetery. I had made a plan this year to go early and not stay very long, expecting the same thing — travelers looking for mezcal shots, pointing their cameras in locals’ faces without asking permission, and having a roaring good time. I noted that tour guides had not prepared the visitors for an experience that included cultural sensitivity and respect. In 2022, foreign visitors outnumbered village residents two to one.
This year, I was very surprised to see only one face-painted visitor, no buses or vans, and very few tourists between 5 and 6:30 p.m. I thought, perhaps it was because the village municipal authorities made a policy to collect a toll from the buses and vans.
Oh, but how I was misled! My good friend Ani, who has been living here since 2003, went to the cemetery to pay her respects to our dear friend Juvenal, who died from Covid at the front end of the pandemic. He was fifty-two. She reported to me that the buses and vans showed up at 7 p.m., disgorging revelers who came to party. I narrowly escaped the assault.
The benefit of visiting earlier is that I saw Teotiteco familes enjoying the balmy fall evening, sitting around the gravesites of their loved ones, telling stories, eating peanuts and oranges, maybe taking sips of mezcal or beer. I mistakenly assumed that the panteon had returned to how it was pre-Pandemic.
So this brings me around to visitor behavior and etiquette for visiting cemeteries in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
- Please do not dress up in costume or paint your face! Locals don’t like it. This is not the tradition here (nor is it in Patzcuaro). Face painting comes right out of the movie Coco and has nothing to do with Day of the Dead. Nor does Halloween. Like many things, foreigners introduce ways that are culturally inappropriate and erode customs.
- Observe how local people dress and comport themselves and do the same.
- Come with flowers for graves, Day of the Dead bread, and candles. You can connect with a family this way if you make an offering to their loved one.
- Please do not arrive drunk or bring mezcal into the cemeteries. This is not your celebration. You are a visitor who needs to be respectful and circumspect.
- Walk slowly. Smile. Say hello. You may be invited to sit when you show that you understand and care.
- Please do not point your camera lens in someone’s face. I see this time and again. It happened to me in the village market and it doesn’t feel good. It feels invasive. Ask for permission if you are within six feet of another. Panorama photos can be taken without asking permission.
- Understand that you are stepping on sacred ground. This is an 8,000 year old tradition. Please let’s help keep it that way.
If anyone has any other tips or comments they want to add, please send me an email and I’ll publish them. Thank you for reading and listening.