Bathed in the glow of hundreds of flickering candles, I breathed in the heady perfume of copal incense. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I tentatively picked my way through the jumble of tightly packed gravestones. An elderly woman pulled her shawl around her as she adorned her husband’s grave with sweet-scented marigolds and prepared for an all-night vigil. At a neighbouring grave, a family remembered their dead with tales, tamales and toasts of mezcal. Suddenly there was a plaintive wail, trumpets blared and a mariachi band launched into a Spanish version of ‘My Way’.
Despite its name, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is far from macabre. It’s a time to remember the dearly departed, a joyful celebration of lives led, rather than a sombre mourning of its passing. In a country as geographically and socially diverse as Mexico, the festivities vary from region to region, but around the city of Oaxaca, in south-east Mexico, it involves more ceremony and ritual than anywhere else in the country.
Food for the fiesta – When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes reached Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HAH-ca) in 1521, he found a captivating place of green valleys flanked by high mountains; a new city soon grew over and around the great Zapotec and Mixtec temples. Today, much of Oaxaca’s charm lies in its convergence of indigenous cultures and the juxtaposition of the ancient and modern. Its zocalo (central square) is filled with flowering purple jacaranda and orange flamboyant trees; its imposing Church and Monastery of Santo Domingo are some of the best examples of colonial architecture in Mexico; world-class museums and contemporary galleries sit next to socio-political street art; it’s home to the finest markets in the country, as well some of its top chefs. One such chef is Alejandro Ruiz,. Inspired by the richness of native produce he turns traditional recipes into gourmet fare.
At his award-winning restaurant, Casa Oaxaca, I feasted on venison tamales with mole. This rich sauce, made from an eclectic mix of up to 40 ingredients – including bitter chocolate and fiery chillies – is an elemental part of any Oaxacan celebration, including Day of the Dead. Even Oaxaca’s traditional spirit is reaching a new audience these days, as modern mezcalarias sprout up around the city. At Mezcalateca, a dark, speakeasy-style bar, I gazed at the hundreds of bottles of mezcal standing shoulder to shoulder. Distilled from cultivated and wild maguey, the spirit is still produced by rural families in the age-old way; as I savoured its potent smoky flavour, I was told that I was not only tasting the essence of the plant but the history, culture and politics of the land it comes from.
Keeping crafty – Traditions are well and truly alive outside Oaxaca City. Small towns with Nahuatl (Aztec) names, where Spanish is still the second language, hold thriving weekly markets; here, locally grown, seasonal food is a way of life, not a culinary movement. At the Sunday market in Tlacolula, I watched a Zapotec women, resplendent in her best frilly apron, as she stirred an enormous bowl of tejate. This non-alcoholic pre-Hispanic drink is made from ground corn, cocoa and mamey seeds, and is still drunk from gaudily painted jicaro gourds. There are also many towns and villages that still dedicate themselves to a particular craft, such as weaving, embroidery or wood carving. I travelled to San Bartolo de Coyotopec, famed for its black pottery.
At the State Museum of Popular Art I met artist Carlomagno Pedro Martinez, who was born into a traditional pottery-making family but has now turned it into fine art. He stays true to his roots but creates unique pieces that focus on the Zapotec legends he learnt as a child, and death, which he calls ‘our grandmother’. It was becoming clear that in Mexico they see death differently. “We believe that dying is not to be feared, nor is it taboo to talk about it or think about it,” Carlomagno told me. “The Mexican obsession with death pre-dates the Spanish conquest but when they arrived they couldn’t eradicate it, so they encouraged it.” Indeed, the Day of the Dead is an amalgam of pre-Columbian mysticism and Spanish Catholic tradition. Its origins stretch back to the Aztecs, who dominated central Mexico for centuries. They held a feast for the dead in the middle of the year, believing death was not the end but merely part of the cycle of life.
A Spanish manuscript dated 1553 states: “They used to celebrate the feast of the dead, offering in their honour to the devil many turkeys, corn, blankets, clothing, food… every household celebrated a great feast.” The Spanish moved the Aztec celebrations to coincide with the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day on 1 November and All Souls’ Day on 2 November. In fact, to call it the Day of the Dead is misleading; it’s actually several days of festivities, during which time it’s believed that the deceased – children (angelitos) on 31 October and adults on 1 November – have divine permission to visit friends and relatives on earth to eat, drink and be merry once more.
Sweet skulls & skeletons – The eating and drinking are an integral part of the festival, and back in Oaxaca City, at the diminutive Mercado Sanchez Pascuas, the preparations for the Day of the Dead were well underway. Outside, indigenous women, brightly coloured ribbons woven into their long black plaits, sold mounds of freshly cut cempasuchil (orange marigolds) and purple cock’s comb. Inside, there was a festive atmosphere, the walls festooned with papel picado – delicate tissue paper cut into intricate designs. Chillies of all shapes and sizes – fresh, dried, red, green, brown, black – were heaped together and stalls overflowed with sacks of pungent spices and fragrant sticks of cinnamon. The air was filled with the delicious aroma of steamed tamales – corn dough stuffed with meat and vegetables and wrapped in corn husks – while stallholders nibbled on chapulines, the surprisingly tasty local delicacy of deep-fried grasshoppers.
Rickety stalls were piled high with elaborately decorated sugar skulls, some with names iced on to their foreheads. There was also pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a sweet-tasting roll meant to look like bones or with a little wooden effigy baked in to the dough. The aisles were stuffed with calaca (skeleton figures) from every conceivable profession – doctors, musicians, prostitutes – all engaged in everyday activities: sitting at a typewriter, waiting at a bus stop, getting drunk in a cantina. In fact, you could buy everything that’s needed to build an ofrenda (altar) in honour of your deceased relatives. The altar is believed to help guide the spirits back for their brief sojourn. Each family builds one in their home; depending on budget, they can range from a simple decorated table to a towering five-tiered affair, but all have the same basic elements.
They looked like beautiful art installations but it wasn’t clear what they symbolised, so I jumped at the chance when a family invited me to help them build their own. We began by covering a table with a white cloth and taped brightly coloured papel picado to the front, to signify the wind and the fragility of life. Long stalks of carrizo, a type of reed, were tied to form an arch, representing the passage between life and death. We put an image of Mexico’s favourite saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, on the altar, and then their loved ones’ favourite possessions – a book of her grandfather’s, a shawl belonging to his grandmother. They invited me to add something.
Unprepared, I stopped and thought for a moment before adding my camera to the mix in honour of my grandfather, who loved photography. Then came the food. Tamales, fresh fruit, nuts and a bowl of mole were placed on the altar as a feast for the spirits to savour. Although, being spirits, they can only consume the essence of the food. Every altar has to have a glass of water, not only because it embodies purity but because the dead are thirsty after their long journey. And not just for water. Bottles of mezcal and beer appeared, along with a packet of cigarettes. It seems bad habits continue beyond the grave. Finally, photographs of the deceased were put in pride of place. We tore up the cempasuchil to make a petal pathway to the altar and lit candles and incense to help guide the spirits home.
Cemetery celebrations – After dark on 31 October, I headed to Oaxaca’s largest cemetery, the Panteon San Miguel. Outside its gates, a carnival was already in frill swing: there were echoes of laughter as people swirled around on neon-lit amusement rides, raucous music blasted from speakers and ramshackle stalls sold beer, tacos and waffles in the shape of crosses. At the cemetery’s heart stood a 17th-century chapel, an atmospheric shell of crumbling adobe walls open to the elements. A brass band pumped out popular tunes, and candles lined the floor-to-ceiling walls of square tombs, many of which dated back hundreds of years. A stream of people – some dressed as ghosts, skeletons and mummies – filed past the extravagant altars and brightly coloured sand carpets, created especially for the festival.
Some portrayed religious icons, others the iconic image of the ‘Calavera de la Catrina’ by Jose Guadalupe Posada. In the early 20th century, the prolific printmaker and illustrator had depicted a female skeleton wearing a hat befitting the European upper classes of the time, in a satirical portrait of those Mexicans who, Posada felt, were unduly influenced by European aristocracy. Over time, she’s become inextricably linked to the Day of the Dead. I watched children play tag around the gravestones under the watchful eye of crumbling cherubs and benevolent Madonnas. It felt alien to be celebrating in a graveyard, to be celebrating death. Aren’t graveyards supposed to be places of fear and sadness? Not in Mexico. Nobel prize-winning Mexican author Octavio Paz summed it up: ‘To the people of New York, Paris, or London, ‘death’ is a word that is never pronounced because it burns the lips.
The Mexican, however, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it.’ I moved on to the smaller and more remote Panteon Antiguo in Xoxocotlan, 5km from the city. If I thought being in a graveyard after dark was the stuff of horror films, this one bucked the trend: it was full of light and, bizarrely, life. It was midnight and the festivities were at their peak as families sat around the graves, eating, drinking, laughing and telling stories. Mariachi bands strolled from grave to grave and, for a few pesos, they would play the favourite song of the deceased. Like the ofrendas, the decorated graves overflowed with gifts and food; proud of their artistry, the families were happy for strangers to stop and admire them. In the candlelight the burial place took on an otherworldly atmosphere and, as I left the town, I watched the orange glow from the cemetery fading into the pitch black night.
Dancing with the devil – Another archaic Oaxacan Day of the Dead tradition are the comparsas – lively street parades for the dead. These involve flamboyant costumes, gruesome masks and face paint, riotous dancing and banda (a kind of Mexican polka), with ear-splitting firecrackers exploding at random adding to the mayhem. One of the most popular comparsas takes place in San Agustin Etla on 1 November. I watched as the devil, the priest and the skeleton Catrina – along with bottles of beer and mezcal – worked their way through the town, inviting onlookers to join them in their chaotic carnival-like procession. The Grim Reaper stopped to hand me a skull. As I bit into its sugary sweetness, I marvelled at the Mexicans’ apparent nonchalance in the presence of death; the exuberance with which they accompany the dead for a night or two. Or perhaps it’s a celebration of still being in the land of the living.