Día De Los Muertos in Oaxaca: The City, the Valley, and the Sierra.
By Brent Swartz
I stand on a hilltop, where the cemetery takes the most central position of the village, next to a three by five foot hole and a bucket of bones. The bones were most certainly disinterred while making room for the plot's new occupant, a reminder that even in death the old must make room for the 'relatively' young. From the village below bells ring, bassoons bellow, and trumpets hail the procession that is making its way through the streets and up to the cemetery. It's a rowdy affair, at least in comparison to our sedate and melancholic funerals in the United States.
It's October 31st, the first day of Día De Los Muertos, when infants are welcomed back from the afterlife. Oaxaca and the country at large has been abuzz with anticipation for this most important celebration in Mexico. The markets are feasts of color with literally bails of marigolds, flor de muertos, and crestas de gallo flowers being sold and carted off to the cemeteries. Throughout the state of Oaxaca there is not one, but many Días De Los Muertos, with each town or village demonstrating its own flair, character, and reverence for the dead. These differences are illustrated in the cemeteries themselves which come to color and life leading up to the festivities. The main cemetery in the city of Oaxaca, the Panteón General, largely consists of elaborate marble tombs encircled by a columbarium. While in the Sierra Norte, where we were hiking that day, cemeteries are often times simple stone gardens on a hilltop in the forest.
If one could be so bold as to categorize the regions around the city of Oaxaca, then you could divide them into three parts consisting of the city, the valley, and the sierra. From that point in the sierra overlooking the funeral procession we would loop to the city, through the valley, and then back to the sierra for several small tastes of the different takes on this incredible celebration. Día De Los Muertos is rooted in ancient pre-columbian Mexico, and celebrating in this largely indigenous region is what makes Oaxaca an amazing place to be at this time. Yet, what made it truly exceptional was the kindness and openness we experienced as Oaxacans threw open their doors inviting us in for traditional hot chocolate, meals, mezcal, and conversation about death and family.
The 'we' in this story is myself and my partner, traveling companion, and all around rockstar Annelisa Tornberg. After three days hiking in the sierra we headed back to the city and ended up where many Oaxacans do for Día De Los Muertos, at the Panteón General. On November 1 the children return, and at the Panteón they are memorialized in elaborate alters throughout the cemetery with photos of smiling school children atop the flowers and offerings. In Mexico, a tomb is not only a sacred spot but also a place to sit, and scores of people sat on friends, family, and stranger's graves listening to Mariachi music throughout the cemetery. Masked and costumed characters lurked between the gravestones and children played till late in the night for what was anything but a morbid atmosphere. Seeing such a revelatory scene take place, in a cemetery of all places, the meaning of the celebration began to sink in. Death is the great leveler that comes for us all and is something we must come to terms with; either in a full embrace as they do in Mexico, or in a silent and mournful manner as we often do back home in the States. For me, a cemetery is being chased by the Headless Horseman from Sleepy Hollow and a place my grandfather lies where I have not visited since the day he was buried. Amidst the flowers and music I realized that I would not tremble so in the face of death if I could be so assured that my children and grandchildren would welcome me home by pouring half a Negro Modelo on my grave leaving the rest for me after a thirsty trip from the afterlife. If only we would turn cemeteries into gardens, children chasing butterflies between the gravestones.
There were also parades in the streets and after our surrealistic experience in the cemetery we caught the tail end of one of these Comparsas de Muertos. I caught the eye of a woman standing in a doorway who was holding an unlabeled green bottle. We had one of those connections only found between those possessing mezcal and those desiring it. This connection quickly turned into a bond as she rushed across the street to share her homemade 'all natural' mezcal.
“Como te llamas?” she asked. “Brent,” I replied. Brent is a name with no Spanish equivalent and particularly difficult to pronounce especially for the tipsy. “Oh, Branch,” she said. This would become a theme for the rest of the night. Several minutes later her niece walked out the door and accidentally pulled it closed behind her, locking the entire family out of the house: tired children, ninety year old grandmas, and all. Yet no fear, because 'Branch' was to the rescue. I scaled a cement telephone pole making sure to duck and avoid several of the low slung electrical wires. Only when I was on top of the fifteen foot wall did they start calling, “¡Cuidado Blanca!”; fateful words, “Beware of Whitey!” I edged across the roof in order to drop down into the courtyard looking for the forewarned dog, while the woman out front yelled “Wench, Wench!” Which was apparently the next incarnation of my name. I was able to subdue the 'beast' with a few “hey poochie poochies” and a scratch behind the ears for what turned out to be a glorified lap dog. “Bienvenidos!” I yelled throwing open the door to their house, and for the rest of the night we imbibed in animated conversation and homemade mezcal. The lovable Doña of the house was named Minerva, and as she pushed more mezcal upon us she traded turns with her two cousins in lecturing us about the importance and history of Día De Los Muertos.
“Ay, como te llamas? Jesus?” She asked. At this point I was whoever she wanted me to be. “Si Minerva, yo soy Jesus.” “Ahh…” she says. “Chu chu entonces,” 'Chu Chu' being a nickname for Jesus.
With sweeping hand gestures and a rising and falling voice, she went on and on about this thing called death. “Tu piel es blanco, y mi piel es marrón. Pero ambos tenemos el mismo color de huesos.” “Your skin is white and my skin is brown. But we both have the same color bones.” In essence she was saying that the substance of one's self is found beneath the skin; in the end life is fleeting and we're all the same color in the boneyard. Eventually we stumbled from the house and into the street with gracias, adios, and a promise to return the next week for lunch. It must have been two or three in the morning and none of them had yet gone to bed; neither sleepy children nor ninety year old grandmas.
We spent the next two days exploring the valley where the majority of the marvelous arts, ceramics, carvings, fabrics, and other crafts are produced, and we visited more cemeteries. In the town of Ocotlán the weekly Friday market fell on November 2, coinciding with the final official day of Día De Los Muertos when adults are welcomed from the great beyond. We walked down the street towards the cemetery, banked on both sides by marigolds which are the traditional flowers used to mark a spirit's return home. Once in the cemetery, each family seemed to have their own ritual: a dash of mezcal on the ground and a shot placed on the raised bed of earth, an older woman knitting with her feet propped up on a tomb, a plate of mole or pozole at the foot of a grave. Several young men were lighting cigarettes and placing them on a headstone for what I am sure was the eternal delight of that particular spirit. Finally, at three o'clock, goodbyes were said and all the spirits were whisked away until the following year. This moment effectively marked the end of Día De Los Muertos despite the fact that most of the living would remain in the cemetery till late that night. Yet there was one final place where Día De Los Muertos was to live on…. So back to the Sierra Norte we traveled for 'El baile en el cerro,' the dance on the mountaintop.
On our prior visit to the Sierra Norte, while bouncing around the back of a truck, we met an older señor and his wife from the village of Cuajimoloyas. Midway up the mountain we stopped to collect flowers for their alters and they told us of 'El baile in el cerro,' which marks their final day of celebration for Día De Los Muertos. The aforementioned mountaintop hosting the dance is a pronounced rocky bluff that dominates the town. Two brass bands played Banda music for the villagers, who were dancing by noon, and the occasional party goer went soaring off over the village on a quarter mile long zip-line. Annelisa was propositioned to dance by none other than our friendly señor with whom we had ridden up the mountain and picked flowers the week before. They danced what I've come to call 'the Mexican two-step' and we were invited to his home the following morning for breakfast.
On our last morning in the sierra, while everyone slept after a late night fiesta and the spirits had presumably long since departed, I walked alone to the edge of town and the cemetery. The Sierra Norte has a certain way of gathering the clouds, which then quickly burn off as they spill over the top of the ridge into the valley. The light streaming through the trees and the retreating fog was particularly beautiful that morning. Even though I've never been what one would call an especially religious man, I still call this God's light and am yet to find a more fitting description. The wooded cemetery, resplendent in it's flowers and location, was peaceful and a far cry form what I would call the lonesomeness of cemeteries I've been accustomed to. Let's face it, this dying thing can be some lonesome business, and the loneliness is what we fear most from death. Our tales of ghosts and spirits tend to be those of cheerless ones haunting houses and hotels with nothing better to do then change television channels and slam a couple doors here and there. And our cemeteries are often forgotten places with plastic flowers bleaching in the sunlight. This was my eighth cemetery in six days, and it's funny how a veritable cemetery tour could be one of the most life affirming experiences of my life. Then and there, I made a promise to myself to celebrate death and to make damn sure my friends and family see that I'm doing it. For I do not want my grandmother, nor my mother or father, nor anyone I love to tremble in the face of dying, believing they may be forgotten in a lonely cemetery. I want them to one day look for a path of marigolds and know that for at least these days every year they will be remembered, welcomed, and treasured.