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.