Tag Archives: Dia de los Muertos Oaxaca

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

Getting Ready for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Parade of the Catrinas

I can’t help myself. Those flamboyant, extravagantly costumed Catrinas, made famous as a Dia de los Muertos symbol by political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada, are starting to pop up all over town. Day of the Dead is a big deal in Oaxaca, Mexico.

MuertosCatrinasBest38-22 MuertosCatrinasBest38-11

As I walk the cobbled streets and uneven sidewalks, I remember to look up (as well as down to make sure my footing is solid). There are Calaveras on rooftops and leaning over balconies here in Oaxaca, too.

MuertosCatrinasBest38-19    MuertosCatrinasBest38-32

Of course, I have to photograph them and the golden marigold flowers that are coming into full bloom. Their fragrance guides the dead from the other world back to this one for the annual visit to loved ones still living.

MuertosCatrinasBest38-9 MuertosCatrinasBest38-20

Whimsy, fun, mockery, parades, joyfulness and celebration are all part of Day of the Dead. Local people take the return of their loved ones seriously. They are deadly serious. One mother I know from El Norte who lost her adult son this year to a rare illness, is waiting with family in her local village for Muertos when she will be with her son again.

MuertosCatrinasBest38-29 MuertosCatrinasBest38-35

This is a pre-Hispanic tradition based in belief and mysticism, attached to the harvest season when all that lived returns to the earth.

MuertosCatrinasBest38-27 MuertosCatrinasBest38-15

We have two weeks to go but the energy is building. Shop windows lure the eye with decorations that are uniquely Oaxaca plus a blend of Halloween, an adaptation of commerce brought to Mexico by the U.S.A.

MuertosCatrinasBest38-37 MuertosCatrinasBest38-12

So, we see a blend, a syncretism of sorts, of plastic pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, ghosts, candy corn, spiders and gauze integrated with skeletons riding bicycles, skeletons wearing rebozos and skeletons dressed in indigenous clothing.

                                   My vote for the best decorations is the patio                                                                        entrance to Los Danzantes Restaurant.


Today, I went to the printer to make a copy of a special photograph of my dad who died in 1997.  I’m thinking about the altar I will build where I will display his photo in memorial, light copal incense and guide his spirit back to me.

MuertosCatrinasBest38-18 MuertosCatrinasBest38-14

He wasn’t a drinker, but he liked a beer on a rare occasion. It really didn’t matter what kind. So, maybe a Victoria will go on the altar along with fresh fruit and a 24-hour candle whose flame will remind me of life, death, memory and the commitment to honor a beloved parent.

How to build a Day of the Dead Altar and Another Version 

MuertosCatrinasBest38-13 MuertosCatrinasBest38-4

As I passed through the Zocalo, I noted doorways decorated with flowers, young boys tossing balloons, mothers and fathers strolling with their infants hugged to their bosom or nestled in carriages. A bandstand was set up awaiting the next performance. More tourists are in town meandering, eating in outdoor cafes.

MuertosCatrinasBest38-17  MuertosCatrinasBest38-24

Soon Muertos will be here. Another opportunity to count blessings, to appreciate life and to honor those who gave it to us.

The Oaxaca Xoxocotlan Day of the Dead Carnival

The streets of Xoxo (pronounced Ho-Ho) are packed with cars by 7:00 p.m. and it is difficult to find a place to park without having to walk miles to the cemetery.  I had hired a van and driver to take our small group to this village famous for its October 31 Day of the Dead “All Souls’ Day” celebration.  He led us through the streets lined with stalls where women were cooking on outdoor griddles (comals), where artists were displaying their paintings for sale, where street vendors were selling masks and candles and flowers and bread.  At the end of the street just before the cemetery entrance a brass band from the village was playing a medley of tunes.  We agreed on a meeting time in case we separated and entered the sacred space.  The walls of the cemetery (panteon) were high brick, maybe fourteen feet tall, covered with stucco.  As my eyes adjusted to the dark, the glow of candles illuminated the place and cast dancing shadows on the faces of men, women and children, vases of flowers, and headstones.

The ground was uneven as I groped my way around the valleys between the mounds of earth that differentiated each grave.  (I should have worn tennis shoes, I reminded myself.) As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see the family groups hovering around the resting places of their loved ones.  Yet, the scene was punctuated by visitors who looked like me climbing over and between tombs, trying to get a good camera angle. I heard English, German, Dutch, French and Spanish.  I was witness to an argumentative visitor who insisted to her travel guide that she was not drunk and was not leaving.  I can’t imagine that graves were not desecrated during this extravaganza and I continue to wonder how the locals really feel about their ritual becoming a tourist attraction.

In the center of the cemetery was a large, ancient structure, perhaps a church, whose walls were being held upright by timbers.  There was no roof and inside you could see the clear Oaxaca sky and the star field.  Perhaps it had tumbled during an earthquake and was never repaired.  Who knows?

This cemetery was small and I soon learned after asking that this was the village’s old cemetery (Panteon Viejo).  Donde esta el nuevo? I asked.  I had been to the Xoxocotlan Day of the Dead before but this particular cemetery was unfamiliar to me.  It did not have the energetic carnival atmosphere of the Xoxo that I was familiar with.  The new cemetery is about six blocks from here, a villager answered and pointed me in the general direction and I took off, making my way through a street festival that could only be produced in Mexico — crowds shoulder to shoulder, food stalls, games, music, beer and mescal, barbeque, rides and lottery.  The overhead lights looked like Christmas magnified.  I knew I was heading to the right place.  Then I heard the chanteuse belting out a soprano that could only cause one to shiver and I followed her voice.  She was backed up by an orchestra on a stage under a huge tent at the entrance to the New Cemetery.  The lane leading to the arched opening was lined with commercial vendors selling toys, lanterns, lights, masks, and other Day of the Dead accoutrements.

I entered the space to be greeted by huge crowds in Halloween-esque costumes, strolling mariachis, graves decorated with balloons, plastic pumpkin lanterns, flowers, teens and young adults on dates or prowling for them, and plenty of drink.  There was so much light from the multitude of candles and overhead lanterns that camera flash was hardly needed.

I returned to the Old Cemetery to find my group and asked them if they wanted the experience of seeing a counterpoint to the serenity of what we encountered at the original Xoxo site.  With a resounding YES, we made our way together.  Needless to say, it was a very late night and we didn’t get back to our hotel until after 1 p.m.  However, I know that the revelers will have outdone us and stayed up till dawn waiting for their loved ones to come back from the dead to visit one more year for one more day.