Each year at a local neighbourhood park, Jane helped by people from the Casa, creates a memorial for Oaxacans who have died in the US. A candle was lit for each of the 157 Oaxacan people who died in the USA during 2013 “in search of the American Dream”.
Jane and the Casa Colonial staff hosted a party at Thorny’s grave in Panteon San Miguel (“the new one”) cemetery on the night of 1st November. Together with Jan and Thorny’s friends we sat around on graves eating, drinking and toasting Thorny while the band played. The mescal flowed and we were grateful for the chance to be participants not observers.
At midnight we travelled to, another nearby town, Atzumpa, where the cemetery is situated on a hill overlooking the small town. If we were confronted before, we were shocked by what awaited us here. It was sensory overload. We were assuaged by the smell of marigolds and copal incense, by the colours and candle-lights, by the chaos of the crowd and the very loud carousing band on the brightly lit stage.
There was a seething mass of people. We made our way between graves marked out by candles. There were no paths. We were worried about intruding on people’s private moments of reverie, physically falling onto a grave and our clothes going up in flames. A couple sat quietly beside a grave, often just a simple earth mound covered with flowers. Family groups lit fires and cooked food. Older people sat a solitary vigil. Children bedded down for the night. Young people texted and tourists gawked.
We felt more intrusive here, perhaps because it felt more private and less structured. It was as if we were crossing a boundary, stepping into people’s personal space. This was a much poorer area, the graves were less demarcated, less concrete, less showy decorations, and we wondered whether more people were awaiting the return of loved ones.
We were aware of the struggle that communities like Atzumpa and Xoxocotlan have in interesting young people in maintaining the Day of the Dead traditions. The introduction of live music is part of the local government trying to engage and entertain. We hoped it wasn’t just for tourists. These Day of the Dead traditions are vigorously marketed to tourists like us as “authentic”. Tourism in turn brings economic benefit and there is value added to the maintenance of traditions.
At 9 pm on the night of the 31st October when we approached the Nuevo Panteon cemetery in Xoxocotlan, outside Oaxaca city we encountered huge crowds, a stage with large video screens displaying traditional dancing and music. We thought we were at a pop concert. In the beginning it was hard to tell who were tourists and who weren’t. Once inside the cemetery the separation became clear. We were the awkward awe struck ones stumbling around in the dark with cameras.
We both had a heightened sense of being observers into what was private family business. At the same time, this was a very public and community event. This was exactly the culmination of what we had come here for. The evening at the Xoxo cemetery is the high point of the Day of the Dead package as promoted by regional tourism. It is impossible not to be aware of this. But our experience was much more than this.
We were expecting eating and drinking and dancing. Away from the entrance it was quiet. Yes there were strolling mariachi bands and and as the night wore on there may have been more alcohol consumed, but this was not a party. It was a respectful night-long vigil.
Family groups gathered around the grave. Children played with the decorations. Young adults showed off their skeleton makeup. But there were also solitary people in a more reflective space. As an observer it was impossible to know if people were quiet or sad, waiting for family to arrive or for the dead to return or in their private reverie or conversing with the dead.
Some graves suggested wealth with their extensive gravestones, expensive flowers, decorations and candles. Some had sandpaintings on the grave and fencing to demarcate a family plot. Some gravesites were very Catholic while others not.
Even though we were uncomfortable as outsiders it was a very moving experience. We reflected on the distance we put between ourselves and those we know who have died. Culturally we value separation from the dead rather than connection. We encourage ‘letting go’ those who have died rather than welcoming them back into our lives. When we visit a memorial or cemetery we don’t linger. We like to keep the boundary clear between the living and the dead.
As we left Xoxo at midnight, more and more people were arriving and the atmosphere was becoming louder and perhaps more festive. Far from the stillness and solemnity we associate with death.
Walking home one night Sarah saw this small Day of the Dead parade consisting of just a few flat bed trucks. Amongst the large figures was Santa Muerte (Saint Death) a folk saint who has a large following in Mexico and the US. She is often depicted as a robed skeleton, usually holding a scythe and globe. Here she is carrying the scales of justice. She is very different to the secular female skeleton figure Catrina (created by Posada) who we encounter everywhere.
We were told that Santa Muerte will grant your wishes, though not necessarily in the way you imagine, and she will always demand something in return. She drives a hard bargain. She is said to be a favourite for those living on the edge of society or those who fear violent death, such as criminals, police, homosexuals and transgender people.
Los Dias de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is celebrated in different ways throughout Mexico where different indigenous groups have their own customs.
The festival happens anywhere around the 31st October, 1st and 2nd November. It is a time when homes and cemeteries are transformed. The living expectantly await the annual visit of the souls with whom they will interact, establishing an intense dialogue with them. This dialogue between the living and the dead takes on many different forms.
For some people placing offerings on the household altar shows their belief that the dead return to visit. The returning dead are fed, welcomed into the home, and celebrated. The altar and special meal is a private expression of remembering the dead. Visiting the graves or the night vigil at the graveside is the more public expression of the celebration and is very widespread. The dead are spoken of and remembered.
We have only experienced Day of the Dead in Oaxaco, both in the city and in some surrounding towns, discovering for ourselves the great differences in traditions. While we have been reading what we can and speaking with Oaxacans, these are only our own impressions and interpretations.
We saw altars in most shops and many of these were personalized, like the one at the Casa. However, there were also showcase altars in public buildings. Most altars were colourful, vibrant and imaginative. Perhaps altars are also seasonal decoration like Christmas is in our own culture. The altars show the mix of “folk catholic” and indigenous (some say “pagan”) beliefs and traditions.
Although the visit to the graveyard aligns with the Catholic celebration of ‘All Souls Day’ on November 2nd, the meaning of the visit may not be traditional or religious. Some say Europeans visit the cemetery on All Souls Day to remember departed loved ones whereas Mexicans see this as a time when their deceased return to the Earth to spend time with their relatives. The church no longer opposes Day of the Dead activities and instead direct it’s focus, for example saying prayers or masses at the cemetery.
Day of the Dead demonstrates to the community that you show care and respect to the dead as well as for your living friends and family. It maintains a awareness of the thin line separating the living and the dead, after all we live with the uncertainty about our own death. However, for many Oaxacans the expense of making an altar, preparing special food to share and buying flowers and candles for the grave is getting more difficult every year.
We read in a local magazine that in May 2013 the Disney Corporation filed an application to trademark the phrase ‘Dia de los Muertos’ much to the outrage of many Latino communities in the United States and of course, Mexico. It seems there is a Pixar movie coming out soon tentatively titled ‘Day of the Dead’.
(The Eye, October, 2013 p 14)
One of the ideas we were interested in is whether Los Dias de Muerte is evidence a unique Mexican attitude to death: the Mexican who laughs and dances with death, who is not afraid of death but instead venerates it.
The history of Mexico is rife with bloodshed and death for the poor and indigenous. The anthropologist Carlos Navarrete has suggested that this idea about death developed in the 1930s and 1940s in a postrevolutionary time when the Mexican was searching for his roots. Intellectuals like the writer Octavia Paz (see his quote at the beginning of this blog) and artist Diego Rivera, dramatized and romanticized a typical but perhaps mythical Mexican “character”. We now know it’s important to question this romantic stereotype about an Mexican approach to death.
We are surrounded by many quirky examples of Mexican black humour. We wonder are the living being reminded of death or have the dead been given life?
The skull or dancing skeleton is at the heart of popular iconography that laughs at the rich and powerful or the fickle nature of fate and the fragility of life itself. So many Day of the Dead rituals invoke colour, sensory pleasure, vibrancy and chaotic energy, music and dancing- the exact opposite of what we usually associate with death: silence, darkness, fear, grimness, fear and a subdued gloomy, serious mood.
On our first morning we followed Jane’s group to a special Day of the Dead section of the local market to buy things for the Casa altar. In New York Halloween costume party outfits and decorations had been everywhere. They were also here amidst the stalls selling incense, chocolate, marigolds, festive breads, figurines and candles. This is something we will talk about later on.
Back at the Casa we witnessed the building of the arch of marigolds and the decoration of the altar. Over the next days the altar acquired a tumbler of hot chocolate, tortillas, mescal, cigarettes. Members of the tour group had brought photographs and objects to add to the altar to personalize the altar for themselves. We wanted to do the same but had no photos but we lit candles. A path of merigold petals lead the way from the front door to the altar.