I didn’t wear my harem costume this year for Day of the Dead; that would have been 2009 when I was still feeling a little let out of school to be living in Mexico. But that three-week trip to Oaxaca for Día de los Muertos was a life-changer. I knew that if this place were this magic despite a missed flight, a grumpy traveling companion and a bout of the swine flu – it must really be special.
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is Halloween, Mardi Gras and a huge family celebration all rolled into one. It’s a two- to three-day marathon of outrageous costumes and comparsas (costumed gatherings) from the city to the outlying pueblos, mescal drinking and hanging out at cemeteries to remember your departed loved ones with humor and more mescal.
All of that was still happening this year, and I did spend one afternoon strolling down the pedestrian street of Alcalá de Macedonia to get a feel for it. Kids posed with plastic hatchets buried in each other’s skulls for photo money, adults sported full costume and make-up, and there was a pre-school parade of little witches and goblins lined up on a rope so as not to get lost in the crowd.
But Day of the Dead for me this year was all about celebrating it the way that the locals do: remembering dear departed loved ones and being together with family, which for me here in Mexico is family of choice since my few family members by blood are so far away. The tradition merges long-standing indigenous belief that the departed return home for a short visit every year with the conquering Spaniards’ tendency of molding pagan fiestas into their best fit of Catholic holidays – in this case All Saints’ Day, November 1. People believe it’s the time when the veil between this physical world and the spiritual one is the thinnest, and the departed get in effect a two-day leave to come home, a little like a weekend military pass.
The living want to do everything possible to welcome their departed loved ones home, remember the time that they spent among us, and honor them by throwing the biggest party possible. Which means lots of food and mescal.
Each home’s ofrenda (often called an altar, though it has nothing to do with worship) has common features: candles to light the way, pictures of the departed, and food to offer the weary travelers – most often bread, fruit, nuts and chocolate. Plus whatever their favorite drink might have been: my home ofrenda this year featured a little bottle of whiskey for my dad and former father-in-law, and mescal for my dear friend Joe and his son Chris.
I signed up to guide two special Day of the Dead tours for En Via, the microfinance organization that I volunteer for. On November 1, co-guide Micky and I took 11 participants to Teotitlán del Valle, a weaving community about 30 miles from Oaxaca. Loan recipients Tere, her mother-in-law Enedina and her mother Juana welcomed us into their home to explain their home ofrenda and traditions, as well as demonstrate the chocolate making and weaving that their loans support.
To be honest, I wasn’t prepared for how sweet and intimate the moment was. At precisely 3 p.m. on November 1, the church bells began ringing and firecrackers went off to mark the moment that the muertos (the dearly departed) arrived home for their two-day party. Juana showed us their angelitos’, or child angels’ ofrenda, honoring in part the six of twelve children that she lost in infancy – she’ll be 80 next month, so these little angels passed sometime in the 1950’s and 60’s.
I pulled Enedina aside to ask if, according to their traditions, my own departed parents would be able to find me since I was now in Mexico and not where they last saw me in Texas. Of course, she said, they would know where I was and would arrive at 3 with the rest of the muertos. Somehow, it seemed that they did. Tour finished, I hopped a moto-taxi to the Teotitlán house of my friend Michelle, who was hosting a Day of the Dead cooking class. The food was fabulous and the mescal flowed freely, but the best part was a 10-hour sleep that culminated in waking up to coffee and a view of the mountains from her terrace. Girlfriend time is pretty great when it involves a hot breakfast and leisurely rug shopping in the village.
On November 3, Micky and I led another group to San Miguel del Valle, a town up on the skirts of the mountain past the Sunday market town of Tlacolula, and En Via’s most recent loan location. We went first to the house of Cecelia, queen bee of the group of the women there, where though in traditional dress and apron, she manned her cell phone like a drug dealer to coordinate our various stops.
Cecelia explained her ofrenda and traditions over home-cooked yellow mole with beef, lamenting that her husband was in the U.S. working to support the family, which includes a son with cerebral palsy.
She sent a couple of daughters up to the street to keep a lookout for the taxi bringing the couple who had missed the tour van for not setting back their watches Sunday (“a taxi of gringos just went by, chase them!” she shouted up to the street). And then she accompanied us to see ofrendas at two other houses, where we were offered thimble-sized cups of mescal, then hot chocolate and egg bread.
Last stop was the town cemetery, where the celebration had been well underway since early afternoon, and all were gathering to give the muertos their sendoff at 7 p.m. (“we won’t be sleeping tonight since we’ll dance ‘til dawn,” said Cecelia with a huge smile).
Boozy caballeros in their dusty boots and cowboy hats came forward to shower our group with sloppy hugs and kisses; a brass band was playing for a funeral just ending. It was a little New Orleans, a lot Mexican, and sweet and weird all at the same time. The whole cemetery was decked out in marigolds and cockscomb, the traditional flowers of the holiday, with little ofrendas of food and drink on nearly every grave.
The church bells rang for the departure of the muertos, and I guess the dancing began although our van headed back to Oaxaca around then.
It was a wonderful Día de los Muertos weekend this year, celebrating the lives of my departed loved ones with friends and
family of choice.
And my harem costume is still in the closet, just in case.
— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org