Xoxo (Ho-ho)

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.

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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.

Santa Muerte

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.

Laughing at Death

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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.

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