Thursday, November 6, 2008

¡Viva la Muerte!

All week I've been meaning to write about my very first über-Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, but a history-making U.S. presidential election and a quasi-stalker incident involving a taxi driver-slash-television news producer have gotten in the way. You know, just another busy week here in thrill-a-minute Huajuapan.

But I digress. The title of this entry translates to "Long Live Death," which would be a pretty morbid sentiment if I were anywhere in the world except Mexico. Last weekend, I celebrated death as part of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Oaxaca City. Though I've visited Mexico more times than I can remember, ironically I've never actually been in the country in the fall, or more specifically, on November 1 and 2, when DDLM is celebrated. And Oaxaca is to DDLM as Las Vegas is to Sin and Chicago is to's where you go for the crème de la crème. So you can imagine my delight at having the opportunity to pass the holiday here locally.

Some equate DDLM with Halloween, but they're oh-so wrong. DDLM has a bit more meaning behind it than the American squeeze-yourself-into-a-costume-and-stuff-your-face-with-candy holiday. The 'day' is actually two days, set aside to honor, well, the dead. November 1 has traditionally been reserved for children, while November 2 is for adults. Mexican families honor deceased family members by building amazing altars -- stocked with food, flowers, photos, beer, anything that the deceased enjoyed during his or her lifetime -- in their homes. Then, at night, they go to the cemetary to clean and decorate graves. Some families even have a meal there. The idea is to celebrate death as a part of life, so it's a really festive holiday.

I spent most of Saturday wandering through Oaxaca's amazing markets, taking in the sights: row after row of altar-buildin' goodies. Sugar skulls. Wooden skeletons. Flowers. Pan de Muertos (Bread of the Dead). Candles in every shape and size imaginable. And then, when night fell, our group sojourned over to Oaxaca's General Cemetery, where local families had gathered to decorate loved ones' graves, eat a giant meal, and pray together. The presence of something like 4,000 camera-wielding, Lonely Planet-reading gringo tourists detracted from the experience somewhat, but that's part of the deal when you celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca City, I suppose...

Sunday, however, couldn't have contrasted more with Saturday's tourism overload. We took a bus out of the city to a tiny village called Teotitlán, home to a textile-weaving industry and the former host family of one of my friends and co-workers. The bus dropped us off on the side of the dusty highway, far, far away from the village itself, so we were faced with two options: We could either hoof the 15 kilometers into "civilization," or hitchhike our way there. Opting for the latter, we stuck our thumbs out and managed to snag a ride in the back of a passing truck.

The journey was worthwhile. Upon our arrival, our gracious hosts treated us to a shot of home-brewed mezcal, a tour of their weaving facilities, homemade tamales and traditional Oaxacan hot chocolate and pan. Their hospitality was very generous, especially considering we weren't the family's only visitors that day: They'd constructed a giant altar in their dining room, full of flowers and bread and photographs and even a few bottles of beer. They left the door open all afternoon so the spirits could enter the room easily. And, as we gringos gorged ourselves on tamales, they discretely stepped away to place two heaping plates of food on the altar.

When the dead come to visit, they bring their appetites.

After lunch, we made our way back to the dusty highway, only to find that city-bound buses had stopped running because of the holiday. Giddy from all of the sugar we'd eaten in Teotitlán (or maybe it was the mezcal?), we hitchhiked our way back into town, reflecting on death with smiles on our faces.

Translation (gracias, Pato) of the pic above, taken at the gate of the General Cemetery in Oaxaca:

"Postraos: Aquí la eternidad empieza, y es polvo aquí la mundanal grandeza."
"Kneel: Here eternity starts, and dust is here all wordly greatness."

1 comment:

Quinto Sol said...

First, I love your blog...

Second, Day of the Dead is by far my favorite Mexican "holiday"

Third, don't you just love those sugar skulls???