San Pablo Villa de Mitla is known as the City of the Dead. This is where Oaxaca Zapotec royalty were buried during the height of power. The village is steeped in a tradition that goes very deep in the Tlacolula Valley of Oaxaca. Once called Mictlan, this is the word for underworld in Aztec mythology. Most people who die will travel to Mictlan. We learned from our day with master weaver Arturo Hernandez and his wife Marta, that dogs were an essential part of this belief in Mitla. They are loyal mascots and serve to guide their masters from the world of the living to their tombs beyond.
The village closed its cemetery to visitors this year, limiting those who enter to two people per family. The reason: fear of Covid-19. At the entrance to the village on our way to visit Arturo’s home and studio, our van pulled up to a check-point where we were asked to get out, to check our temperatures and to apply hand-sanitizer. The van was then disinfected with an alcohol spray. Whether that does any good or not, I don’t know, but people here feel more secure with this process.
We came with traditional gifts of flowers, chocolate and bread to present to our host, to add to their altar. He greets us in Zapotec and we present our gifts. This is a very special day for the family. And, it is our blessing to honor those from this home who have passed. Whatever is placed on the altar is not removed until after Day of the Dead, which starts here on November 1. At noon, the church bells rings, firecrackers explode, and the dead souls (difuntos) arrive to participate in a meal with the family.
Everything on this altar has pre-Hispanic significance: honeycomb — representing the sweetness of life, salt signifies bitterness, pulque—a preHispanic fermented pineapple drink used by the ancestors often more potent than mezcal (distillation came to Mexico with the Spanish conquest), and tabacco. Before the conquest, locals smoked marijuana that they rolled in corn husks, used in celebrations. It is called a sacred leaf Ojas de humo sagrado. When Catholicism arrived, this practice was prohibited. Guaje, a tree pod whose seeds are filled with protein and also has digestive medicinal benefits. Some of you may know that this tree is prolific in Oaxaca and that is how the city got its name. Pumpkin seeds and native corn, representing sustenance. Nopal cactus is also excellent for the stomach to prevent sickness and preserve health. Chocolate (chocolatl, an Aztec word) was a sacred beverage, too, and always made with hot water, not milk.
Arturo comments that many decorate altars with fruit that is imported and symbols that represent the modern world, like coca cola or beer. He prefers to use native apples from the mountains (not from California), guava, pecans, peanuts, jicama, banana, squash and corn that were available during the time of the ancestors. He tells us the names in Zapotec and linguistically explains that anything that has a name that includes some Spanish is not original. Evidence of many of these seeds were found in the caves at Yagul, just up the road and are carbon-dated to 8,000 years ago. Furthermore, he only uses the wild marigolds, not those that are cultivated.
The altar is a shelf with three arches below representing the stages of life. The first arch represents birth and childhood. The center arch represents youth to middle age. The third arch represents old age and death. Originally, altars were made with reeds to look like a table with three openings below. The shape of the arch was introduced by the Spanish.
In the Mitla tradition, women are given power at marriage. They wear the key to the door of the house at the ceremony and the keys to the money that is in the baule (the wedding chest). There is no evidence of femicide or abuse of women in this village, according to Arturo.
Arturo gives us a backstrap loom wool weaving demonstration, telling us that this is men’s work here. He is using indigo that he dyes himself.
Precisely at noon we stop what we are doing and have five minutes of silence. Precisely at noon the firecrackers go off at the cemetery and Gabriel, who is doing an internship from Guanajuato, lights one in the front yard. Marta comes out with an incense burner filled with copal and lights it. She walks with Arturo to the altar room and he purifies the space with the smokey, aromatic copal. This is the moment that the ancestors arrive — women lay down on the woven palm petate (mat) and men take their seat at the chair flanking the altar. It is sacred space.
After a short visit to the home and altar of Mitla antique dealer Epifanio, we return to Arturo and Marta for a traditional black mole and turkey tamale lunch. This made-from-scratch lunch for 12 of us is complete with locally grown chayote squash, nopal cactus salad, beer, mezcal, and topped off with nicuatole for dessert. This is a traditional pre-Hispanic corn pudding flavored with vanilla (also original to Mexico) and cinnamon.
It’s a privilege to go deeper into the meaning of Day of the Dead and learn the oral history from local people. This is what makes what we do different to give our visitors a cultural immersion experience. Cultural sensitivity and respect is an essential part of our approach.
Commercialization Creep is happening with Day of the Dead. Oaxaca City is completely overrun with an atmosphere of party going. Face painters ply their talent on the streets so that the atmosphere is becoming more like a combination of the U.S. version of Halloween and Mardi Gras. This is encroaching on the traditional villages, too.
I will be writing about our Day of the Dead experience in Teotitlan del Valle in the next few days, where tourists have taken over the cemetery and few local people come to sit by their loved ones tombs.
Traditional Altars: Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico
After a night spent in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan cemetery on October 31 for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico, I headed back to the Tlacolula Valley on Sunday morning. I was invited to San Pablo Villa de Mitla by friends Arturo Hernandez and Epifanio Ruiz Perez to visit for Day of the Dead. Here in Mitla it is always celebrated on November 1.
Mitla, or originally Mictlan, is an ancient Zapotec town at the valley terminus with Mixtec influences carved into its archeological ruins. Mitla was just named a Pueblo Magico so it’s likely that in future years there will be many more tourists there for Muertos.
Arturo took me to the cemetery with him to place flowers on his mother’s grave. The practice in Mitla is different from Teotitlan del Valle, and likely different for each of the Zapotec villages throughout Oaxaca.
Here, he explained, the people come to the cemetery early in the morning, clean the sites of their loved ones, place fresh flowers, light copal incense and finish by noon. The firecrackers go off as the signal to finish.
Then, they immediately return home to wait for the disfundos (the deceased) to return and join them for the afternoon meal. By one o’clock, the cemetery is empty. There is no sitting around the tombs here, like there is in other Oaxaca cemeteries.
This is a family, home-based tradition, says Arturo. Everyone leaves their doors open so that the spirits of loved ones can find their way home, following the scent of marigold, copal incense and the lure of their favorite foods or even a cigarette and shot of mezcal.
At the Mitla cemetery I met Gildardo Hernandez Quero who has a very traditional altar and is known for his in-depth historical knowledge of Mitla and the ways of practicing Day of the Dead from pre-Hispanic times. He invited us to visit. With an offering of a loaf of Pan de Muertos and a bottle of mezcal for the altar, Arturo and I set out to pay our respects.
This is a visiting day. Family and close friends go to each other’s home with flowers, a candle, perhaps bread and chocolate. There is always a candle burning in front of the altar and a fresh one guarantees the light will never extinguish during the 24-hour visit of the dead.
Visitors sit a while. They talk. They remember. No visit is shorter than an hour. You can’t be in a hurry here. You are offered hot chocolate and a piece of sweet egg bread. Perhaps you are invited to taste the mole negro with guajolote. You will always be offered mezcal.
Gilardo’s altar is a ritual vision of serenity that combines pre- and post-Hispanic traditions. Photos of saints adorn the wall. A woven mat, the traditional sleeping mattress called a petate, is on the floor where the dead come to rest. Also on the floor is the candle, jug of mezcal, a squash gourd, beans, fruit and flowers — symbols of the harvest and bounty. Altars were always constructed on the ground before the conquest.
The concrete altar with its arch base is a colonial design imported along with bread, Gilardo says. He also points to the coarse traditional tortilla, black from the comal, that asks us to remember to honor indigenous corn that sustains the people.
We sit a while, talk about the politics of historic preservation and what it means for Mitla now that the town is a Pueblo Magico.
I go back with Arturo to his house where I share a meal with his family and then make a visit to Epifanio Ruiz in the center of town. Epifanio has an antique business on Calle 5 de Mayo. Some of my vintage glass mezcal bottles come from him. He also is recognized by the town for his traditional altar.
I have another mezcal, a hot chocolate and bread, and Epifanio brings me mole chichilo. This is a traditional savory mole that is made the same way as mole negro except without the chocolate, so it doesn’t have the thick chocolate sweetness. I only have room for a taste. It is very good.
Then, I get back to Teotitlan, make a stop to visit Michelle. She has house guests visiting from the United States for the week, so she asked each of them to bring a family photo to add to the altar, which each of them participated in building.
Next, I visit to say hello to the Chavez Santiago family. They sit around the dining room table in their altar room, eating fruit and nuts, playing card games, sipping mezcal and keeping their dead loved ones company.
It’s after dark when I get to the casita.
With each stop to visit, I make an offering of bread and fruit for the altar out of respect to the family and their tradition
At home, I light the 24-hour candle on my own altar in honor of our dad, set the mezcal bottles and copal incense burner on the floor, get cozy in the easy chair and continue to remember.
Practices and traditions for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca vary from village to village, and are held on different days. Epifanio says that the remote village of San Lorenzo Albarradas holds the celebration for a week.
The Teotitlan del Valle church bells are ringing. Someone is in the bell tower for 24-hours and the bells toll from 3 p.m. November 1 to 3 p.m. November 2. Today we will have a 3:00 p.m. meal with the disfundos and then guide them back to the tombs to rest for another year. We will sit with them at their tombs to ensure they rest easy and then return home.
Someone I knew once said, The dead don’t care. I think he’s wrong. I think they do.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Photography, Teotitlan del Valle, Travel & Tourism
Tagged altars, culture, day of the dead, dia de los muertos, Mexico, Oaxaca, pan de muertos, pre-Hispanic, religion, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Teotitlan del Valle, traditions, Zapotec