Tag Archives: Day of the Dead altars

Day of the Dead Preparations in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Life in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, centers around life cycle events. Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — brings us together at the village market to prepare our altars to welcome the difuntos — the spirits of our loved ones who return to earth to visit us each year.

Teotitlan del Valle church atop Zapotec archeological site
Done with shopping and walking home

This could be considered the most important observance in Oaxaca, especially in the villages, where customs and traditions that survived the Spanish conquest continue. The most money is spent on altar and gravesite decorations during Muertos than any other annual holiday, I’m told. It looks that way.

Madelyn with marigolds for our altar. Pungeant aroma guides the dead home.
Flowers are everywhere. The aroma of flowers in the air.

For days, the streets surrounding the market are closed to vehicular traffic. It is packed with people and vendors from the countryside. Backs of trucks and stalls are overloaded with oranges and apples, pineapple, sugar cane fronds, pecans and peanuts, skeleton beeswax candles adorned with handmade wax flowers, tapers, incense burners and copal incense.

Massive flower displays will adorn grave-sites in coming days
Cane fronds signify the door through which the difuntos pass for their visit
Our retreat participants create our group altar

At the molino (neighborhood mill) down the street from where I live, women wait in line with their baskets of ingredients to get their turn at the grinder. Their men — husbands, fathers, sons — wait out front by the truck, catching up on village business. The women will make and serve mole negro, mole amarillo, toasted garbanzo bean soup, or atole — the pre-Hispanic corn drink flavored with homemade chocolate and vanilla. All these need ingredients to be ground. The women bring their unique family recipes, generations in the making.

Atole ingredients, waiting to be ground at the molino
Chicken enchilada with mole amarillo, market breakfast simply prepared

Ten of us are here for the Day of the Dead Women’s Creative Writing Retreat. We come to express ourselves through the written and spoken word. We write about memory and loss, mourning and grief, forgiveness of self and others. In our writing we honor our dead, we cherish what we have lost and in the process we give life to those who have left us.

Claudia with cockscomb flowers for the altar

The culture that celebrates death, celebrates life, says Octavio Paz. Here in Teotitlan del Valle, we are privileged to participate in a sacred ritual of celebration, memory and renewal of spirit.

Pan de Muertos, Day of the Dead bread

We buy the ingredients to create our own altar, including those listed above. To this we add chocolate, mounds of marigold flowers, Pan de Muertos, mezcal and beer. We use a special quilted cloth made by Gretchen Ellinger who could not be with us. We bring photos of our dead to remember them. We remember them. We cherish their memories. We write about them, our feelings of loss, survival, making do without their day-to-day presence. We bring the practice of another culture closer to us to understand that there are different ways to approach life and death, as a continuum, as a process, as we examine and accept our own mortality, too.

There’s my mom and dad, United Teachers–AFT strike, 1960’s
Beeswax altar candles

I write about my father. It is my blessing to his memory, that his life informed mine and gave me meaning. I write about his love of coffee and cigarettes, how he quit, where he failed and endured, how he died. I write the vignettes of memory as a child turned adult. It is my portrait of him, my love for him, his quirks and idiosyncracies. This is my time to go beyond Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, into the depths of my family and my heart.

Claudia, Robin and Poppy buying tamales
Our tamale vendor, queso con rajas — stuffed with cheese with chiles

I savor Dia de los Muertos because of this. I think the women who are with me this week share in this sense of honoring our loved ones, discovering our voices, and giving words to feelings. As we said, we grieve many things: the loss of people in our lives, the loss of self as we age and change, the loss of circumstances that alter us, the loss of who we wish we had become and embracing who we are.

Turkeys and chickens waiting for dressing

I’ll be writing more about this in days to come. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these photos of preparations. We were at the market today at 7:30 a.m. It was packed with people!

Sweet oranges for altars and gravesites
Siphoning Tobala wild agave mezcal, unlabeled deliciousness

Muertos at Home: Mezcal, the Breakfast Chaser — Oaxaca 2009

The elderly couple entered the altar room bearing a basket of bread (pan), chocolate, floras de muertos (an aromatic small white wild flower) and a tall beeswax candle made in the village.  They lit the candle and replaced the new one in the large holder, careful not to let the flame extinguish.  Incense burned and the warmth of candlelight wrapped the room even though it was only 10 a.m.  They knelt in front of the altar where her dead father’s photo was the centerpiece, crossed themselves in prayer.  They then placed the flowers on the altar and the bread on top, adding another layer to the display of plenty.  They joined the rest of the group assembled around the table and Fede offered all mezcal and a toast to the dead.  What could I do but comply as a guest joining this intimate family gathering?  Yes, of course.  We raised the small shot glasses in salud (Spanish, to your health) and chisbayoh (Zapotec) to pay homage to the departed loved ones and to life.  This would be the first time that I have had mezcal as a breakfast chaser!

Around the table were aunts, sisters, cousins, godchildren, and their children.  Fede, Dolores and Janet gave each guest a plate of sesame breads and hot chocolate.  This was followed by chicken in mole and fresh tamales, and lots of conversation and laughter.  The little ones played games and loved “spin the top” — a lottery game involving taking and leaving roasted pecans from the center pot, depending on where your spin landed.  Janet explained that the tradition of games, bingo, lotteria, and shoots and ladders were typical for Dia de Los Muertos.

the intimacy of the celebration, the family gathering, the relaxation of visiting over time and the exchange of food is part of the authenticity of celebrating Muertos.  We are fortunate to be a part of the family and included in the festivities.

Altars, Altars Everywhere: Oaxaca Muertos 2009

This is a spectacular time of year to be in Oaxaca.  The streets are filled with music, parades, costumes, tourists, and cars.  It can take 30 minutes to get through the historic district in a taxi.  There is excitement and energy in the air with preparations for when beloved departed will return to earth to visit and those who remember them honor their memory.  Altars are everywhere:  in restaurants, hotels, homes, in street vendors’ stalls, shops and tiendas.  Every one is a work of art, incorporating food, drink, photos of the departed, bright marigold flowers, and special touches applied by each creator.  At Restaurante Azucena at the San Martin Tilcajete crossroads, the altar used the seven varieties of indigenous corn, yellow-orange marigolds, sugar skulls, and the light of many votives.  Bamboo fronds form the arch from which to hang fruit, bread, and chocolate.  On Sunday, we will go to Teotitlan to participate in the family ritual of decorating the altar, the center of religious and spiritual home life.  Today, we will accompany the family to the Abastos market to shop for all the goodies.