I didn’t know what to expect when I went to Oaxaca last October for the Day of the Dead celebrations. All Hallows Eve, Halloween to you and me, is the time Mexicans welcome their dead back from the realm beyond the grave, this much I knew. Entire families go to the cemetery carrying food, drink, mementos of the deceased, their favorite books, games or even cigarettes; a family reunion of the living and the dead. What I came to understand during my visit was that this tradition derives from ancient Indian beliefs, pagan in origin, which prevailed in the area before the Spaniards came. Although the ceremonies take place in the graveyards and cloisters of local churches they are not officially sanctioned by the Catholic hierarchy.
Oaxaca was built by the Spaniards on a high plain surrounded by mountains. It is a beautiful colonial city of open plaza’s, soaring cathedrals, and low square homes painted every shade of red, ochre, green and blue. Since traffic is banned in the historic district it was easy to walk around. Though the sidewalks were crowded I could see beyond the arched doorways into the shaded courtyards and gardens. It seemed that every restaurant, store and private home store had its own “ofrenda,” personalized altars commemorating the dead. Some were elaborate affairs framed by soaring palm leaves others were no more than a tray covered with fruit. All were decorated with traditional marigolds and lilies, along with candles, loaves of bread, candy, religious statues, and photographs. Faded brown photos of Zapatista’s in wide brimmed hats, women in flowing dresses, and children, the occasional horse, all long dead yet remembered still.
*I wandered into one of the covered markets, past racks of costumes, glittering ghosts, witches, skeletons and, cowboys waiting to transform the wearer during upcoming celebration. Two elderly women, with braids to their waist, tended a bakery stand piled with loaves, the consistency of brioche, and traditional fare for the holidays. Their business was brisk. On I went past a stall lined with sugar skulls, skeletons and crosses; another old woman sold lumps of copal (incense) from a deep basket, while younger women arranged chocolate nit candy on tin plates. A group of gray haired Americans walked by wearing T shirts printed with dancing skeletons, like aging Dead Heads from the 60’s. Everyone was preparing for the big night.
The music started long before nightfall, brass, drums, and a muted tenor sax. Beneath my window a crowd gathered to watch the procession wind its way from the Cathedral past the bars and cafes, into the Zocala, the main square. There were elderly women carrying candles, men bearing banners of the Madonna and Christ, children in costumes darted through the crush their faces contorted with excitement. Despite the jostling crowds no one raised their voice; the people of Oaxaca were gentle and generous. From the frenzy of preparation to the excitement of the day itself it was obvious the Dead of the Dead was an important occasion. With a clash of cymbals the parade moved on, the street cleared, and we started for the Convent of San Miguel on the outskirts of the city.
Concealed behind high walls convent could not be seen from the street. We entered through a side gate off a muddy lane where the remnants of a market were being packed away. By Mexican standards it was early, and we found ourselves alone in a cloister where candles burned in the sarcophagi that lined the walls. Candlelight played across the flagstones, and cast flickering shadows across the large ‘ofrada’ ranged along floor like massive installations of folk art. We passed a black Madonna, arms outstretched, as if blessing the cascade of fruit and loaves piled around her feet; beside her a multi tiered construction surmounted by a blue angel, circled with palms and wreaths of marigolds. Both ‘ofrada’ stood ten or twelve feet high. There must have been fifty altars each one more grandiose, more complex. Photos of the deceased stared out at us from mountains of fruits and flowers; I fancied their faces were puzzled by the sumptuous displays constructed in their memory. Our guide explained this was a competition held each year for local families.
Leaving the monastery behind we drove to a suburb, in the poorer part of town. As we parked in a side street I heard music drifting through the black night, and the smell of singed meat. In a field fronting the grave yard a party was underway. Huge and raucous, the crowd so dense it was impossible to walk, rather we were swept along in the crush towards the cemetery which was nothing more than a field contained by a wire fence. In the dark the place seemed immense, lines of tombs stretched as far as the eye could see in the gloom of that starless night. Every grave was decorated with marigolds, lilies and gladioli. The graves of the recently dead were covered with sand paintings; Christ asleep, the Virgin, and baby Jesus picked out in bright color like illustrations in a child’s book.
A troupe of musicians strolled by strumming guitars, a gang of boys set off fire crackers, screaming the crowd parted then came together. Families huddled by the tombs of their loved ones, looked up to see what was amiss, then returned to eating, drinking, talking, laughing or simply staring at the throng. Most families were Indian by descent; in the half light their passive faces were reminiscent of Mayan Gods. We walked the length of the field, it was impossible to see anything the crowd was so dense and the air thick with smoke from barbecues. The crowds grew rowdier, tourists jostled with packs of local boys who went on tossing fire crackers. Disappointed we returned to the hotel.
I was woken early by the sun streaming through my window. Nagged by a sense I had not fully experienced the Night of the Dead. Knowing that the celebrations continued all week I decided to return to the cemetery. In the daylight the place seemed smaller, less threatening; before me a sea of marigolds and lilies gleamed in the bright sun. Passing between the lines of graves I saw the care lavished on the decoration, it seemed a matter of pride that every tomb, however humble, was covered with flowers. There were few people about, and my guide told me this was the day the children returned from the dead to be with their families.
Turning a corner I came across a family assembled round a small grave; the flowers had been pushed aside and a makeshift table stood beside the burial mound. Three children played in the grass while the father looked on. The mother was cooking on a rickety barbecue; with care she removed enchilada from the pan, slid it on a plate and placed the food in a cavity carved into the gravestone. She paused, stared at the food, and mouthed a silent prayer. The man father smiled, the children stopped playing and looked at one another as if wondering what to do. Had they been there all night I wondered, keeping vigil in the chaos. Now in the quiet of morning they were reunited with their child.
“Do you have this in America?” whispered my guide.
“How do you keep in touch with your dead?” he said.
“In our memory,” I replied.
Clearly puzzled, he shook his head. I took a last look at the family, they had gathered together, talking amongst themselves, sharing breakfast at the start of a new day. We started back towards the car I had seen what I came for.