How To Read This Blog

This blog follows the journey of Sarah Gibson and Digby Duncan, two Australian artists to Oaxaca in November 2013, to experience the Day of The Dead festival.

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To follow our journey please start at the first entry in the archives and read forwards.

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Many thanks to the Obracadobra Artist Residency Program, Oaxaca and to Jane Robison, Amado and the staff at the Casa Colonial, Oaxaca.


The Casa Colonial, Oaxaca (see early post) where we stayed for our artist residency had a fantastic library.Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 9.31.35 AM


We can recommend these books on Day of the Dead and Mexico:

Artes de Mexico Dia de Muertos: Serenidad Ritual , Numero 62

Artes de Mexico Dia de Muertos: 11: Risa Y Calavera, Numero 67

Brandes, Stanley Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006

Carmichael, Elizabeth& Sayer, Chloe The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. London: British Museum Press, 1991

Chesnut, R. Andrew Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012

Lanyon, Anna Malinche’s Conquest. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1999

Lomnitz, Claudio Death and the Idea of Mexico. New York: Zone Books, 2008

Norget, Kristin Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006



In the West death may be our nightly entertainment but we are further removed from death than ever before. The medical and professional outsourcing of death means that death has become more invisible in the West. Our own discomfort with death means we are very interested in Day of the Dead rituals.

As Claudio Lomnitz writes : “Today, the decorated sugar skull, the papier-mache skeleton and the Days of the Dead ofrenda are highly visible, internationally recognised signs. Mexico has become a recognised site for alternative deathways in the contemporary global imaginary.”

‘Death and the Idea of Mexico’  p. 467


Sugar skulls

In our journey to Oaxaca we looked for a different attitude towards death. Did we find it?

We did find a lighter, more humorous relationship to death in the popular arts and some of the altar decorations. However we found many other things: a respectful and lively exchange between the living and the dead, a challenge to the way we think about homes for the dead, a provocation to ways in which the living remember the dead and perhaps live with an awareness of death.

Sarah does not feel she has been sold a Romantic version of a Mexican way of death, but rather seen the many ways in which we can bring death into life and the ways in which the living fulfil a responsibility towards the dead. The experience was so rich that she no longer worries about whether this is an “invented tradition”. Death is very alive in the Mexican cultural imagination.

faces and skulls

Digby liked the idea of a communal national celebration where the dead are formally remembered by the living. We currently might light a candle for an anniversary, lay a wreath on nominated memorial events, or say a prayer. It would be a completely different event than Anzac Day.

Visiting cemeteries is not all that common in Australia, even less so now as ashes are often scattered. Cemeteries seem sombre lonely places. We wouldn’t think of having a party at the graveside.


We didn’t ever get a straight answer to whether people really experienced the return of the spirits in Day of the Dead celebrations. We wonder whether we can experience the spirits of the dead through acts of memory.

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We were both profoundly affected by our night visits to the cemeteries and are still thinking about what our journey to Mexico means.

The Future

Boy painted up

Many are asking what will be the impact of the commercialization of Day of the Dead? While Day of the Dead involves very private rituals, there are public policy and nationalistic aspects to the celebrations. There are showcase altars everywhere, parades, sandpaintings, costume competitions and entertainment organised for cemeteries. There is profit to be made from Day of the Dead tours.

small girl at grave

Will the act of “marketing” “authentic Oaxacan culture be responsible for changing it?


Kristin Norgent sees two deeply intertwined futures “One of them will be polished, public, official, and increasingly rooted in tourism: a package ready for leisured consumption. The other will continue to be private and intimate: a communal devotion of various members of the popular classes…No doubt, one aspect of the celebration will serve to reinforce the other, perhaps even happily.”

Days of Death, Days of Life’  p. 263

La Malinche

The one book Digby took with her to read while in Mexico was “Malinche’s Conquest” by the Australian writer Ann Lanyon.  She became immersed in and intrigued by the story of La Malinche. The story helped her understand the history, the geography,the feel of the Spanish invasion of Mexico, and of this strong, resilient woman whose name is still synonymous with “traitor”.

She was a translator for Herman Cortes and infamous for speaking the words that caused the fall of the Aztec empire in 1521.

images4  lamalinche-court

La Malinche was a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf  born in 1500, sold into slavery at the age of 10 and given to Cortez when she was 19. Cortes was the Spanish Conquistador who led the expedition to conquer Mexico for Spain. He  needed a translator, Malinche had a gift for languages including Nahuatl- the language of the Aztecs – this  made her indispensible to him.

In 1521 she had a son with him but in 1524 he married her off to another conquistador. Her son Martin, was a mixed race child , a mestizo. Cortes took the child and gave him to a cousin to raise before he left for Spain taking their son with him. La Malinche did not see the child again. She died in 1529. Debate goes on about La Malinche’s role in the conquest and her influence on Cortes at the time.

images2 ‘Cortes and Malinche’ by Jose Clemente Orozco

Publically accessible images of La Malinche are hard to find. Digby found this painting by Juan Ortega ‘The Visit of Cortes and Moctezuma’ (1885) in Mexico City.


Today, in Mexico a derogatory name to call someone is a  ‘malinchista ‘ a person who turns their back on their own culture. Interestingly enough, some do not consider Malinche a traitor. Some view her as a heroine, helping spread the word of Christianity. For others, she was a woman in love, who had no choice but to follow her heart and protect her beloved Cortes.

Maybe for her it was just a matter of survival, an interesting job, an attraction to the power.

However she is viewed with honor by those who consider her one of the first mothers of the Mestizo race because of her son Martin. Regardless of how one perceives Malinche, she contributed to forever change the course of Mexico’s destiny.

Rivera’s Night Vigils

At the Blue House we discovered this ink on paper Triptych ’Offering of Dead’ by Diego Rivera (1886-1957). 10.6x 7.8”

Dead French Painters

We were very disappointed that art works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera held in the private Museo Delores Olmedo in Mexico City were in Paris at the time of our visit. What we did see, apart from Impressionist art works from Paris, was this extraordinary Day of the Dead exhibit. Parisian art scene had been rendered in Mexican style skeletons. Famous artists such as Modigliani, Picasso, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh and others were depicted in tableaus with great creativity and humour.

The Church Adapts

We were interested in the relationship of the Catholic church and the Day of the Dead festival. Earlier in the week we visited the massive flower decorations for the festival in the Cathedral.


We saw many sandpaintings and altars featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe and other religious figures and iconography.

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Guadalupe grave

Until the late 20th century the Catholic church discouraged participation in the festival. We’re told it doesn’t approve of household altars and theologically it teaches that, with the exception of the resurrection of Jesus the dead do not return to earth. However, the church tries to be present in the cemeteries. At the Panteon General we paused where a catholic mass was being held in the covered walkway beside the niches.

We were told that catholic priests move between the graves saying prayers for the souls of the departed and blessing graves with holy water, but that wasn’t something we saw. There is a great rise of the Pentecostal religions in Mexico and people we spoke to wondered how this may in time affect the Day of the Dead in the future.

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Home of the Dead

We saw graves that were mounds of dirt with simple crosses or markers and elaborate houses for the dead.
grave 5
Kristin Norget describes the grave as a home for both the dead and the living. At Day of the Dead when families picnic in the cemetery and hold vigils by the graves, she suggests the living are both hosts and guests of the dead in this house of the dead. She suggests the grave is a familiar and intimate place, a place of memory.

In Oaxaco grieving and remembering are not solitary acts. Is fear of death in our own culture partly the fear of disappearing from the minds of the living? Would a collective act of remembering such as Day of the Dead make us less afraid of dying?