The holiday is focused on remembering family and friends who have died. But, not in a saying-grace-before-the-meal kind of way. The remembrance requires a more concerted effort. Mexicans build altars in their homes and businesses and public spaces. They line them with marigolds and photos of the deceased and sand sculptures and food and candles. They set a place at the table for the spirits and share a meal with them. They may spend an entire day sitting at the headstone of their passed relatives, amidst beautiful displays of flowers. They play music and dance and come together as families. And, businesses and schools are closed. It is a time of reflection, to stop the busy-ness of life to remember the spirits who have left us.
The first stop on our Dia de los Muertos introduction tour was Micah and Zola’s school. The teachers made an altar with the kids, decorated it with flowers and candles and fruit and photos of deceased relatives. Micah and Zola provided a photo of their great grandmother on Leah's side, Momu Great, the only great grandparent the kids were fortunate enough to get to know. The parents were treated to a musical celebration presented by the students, led by a mother of one of the students. Micah was in costume as a cat and Zola as a bird - both homemade. They sang and acted out parts of musical stories. After a hearty round of applause and an encore refrain, the families enjoyed a pot-luck together. Only this pot-luck didn’t include any Vienna sausages in barbecue sauce, or macaroni-n-cheese, or Jello salad. We ate fresh salsa, guacamole, seasoned pork on tostadas, baked squash, beans, and apple pastries for dessert. Micah and Zola enjoyed jumping on the school trampoline in their costumes, together with all eleven of their classmates, before we gathered our things and walked home in the dark.
Our next stop was Xoxocotlan (referred to by locals as “Hoho”), a suburb of Oaxaca known for its Dia de los Muertos festivities. Xoxo, a twenty to eighty minute drive from our house depending on traffic, actually comprised our next two stops. We were invited to partake in the holiday with our friend, Gaby, who grew up in Xoxo, one of nine sisters in a very humble two-bedroom home. We got to meet one of her older sisters during our first visit, the day before the official holiday. She was standing by the family’s home-built wood-fired clay oven, baking loads of traditional Dia de los Muertos bread. There were trays of bread dough ready to be put in the oven and dozens of large buns already baked. Her 24-year-old son was killed in gang violence two years before, so this was a particularly emotional holiday for her. It was clear to us that her son’s spirit was with her; in her grief she also had a sense of peace. We left with bread in hand and an invitation to return for a homemade mole dinner at 2pm the next day.
When we arrived in Xoxo the next day, we couldn’t remember the exact side street to turn onto to find Gaby’s parents’ home. Street names are often not used when giving directions here, and for good reason. Only some streets actually have their names posted, and the names are not at every intersection. So, we called Gaby and described what we saw around us - a blue and white school, a shop called something-something, a road-side vendor… She replied, “I know right where you are. Stay put.” No more than forty-five seconds later, Gaby came walking around the corner. We had been close. She got in the car and directed us the final few hundred feet to her parents’ place. We were greeted by a few of Gaby’s sisters and some family friends. The family altar was beautifully decorated. Bread, apples, mandarins, hot chocolate, tortillas, mole and glasses of water were surrounded by marigolds, candles, and photos. We added a candle and two apples. We had an opportunity to socialize and watch Micah and Zola make new friends. Then, we were offered traditional Oaxacan hot chocolate, along with the slightly sweet bread we had seen being baked the day before. The bread was for dipping. It was like dessert before the meal. Delicious. That was followed by the main course – mole negro, chicken, rice, and tortillas. One of Gaby’s sisters had made the mole from scratch for the first time. She did well. I cleaned my plate … and then Micah’s … and then Zola’s. Micah and Zola had been excused from the table quickly and were off playing with their new friends.
Post-meal, Gaby drove with us to the Xoxo cemetery, with a stop at her house on the way. On this Day of the Dead Eve, the center square in Xoxo was abuzz with festivity. We took in some brass band music and watched people dancing in a “parade of the dead” before walking a few blocks to the old cemetery (there is also a new cemetery). There, we took in amazing displays of flowers and felt history all around us – the arched entryway and crumbling walls of a 17th century colonial chapel stood in the middle of the cemetery. The Christian context of the cemetery was especially interesting considering that Gaby’s youngest sister had just taught us that Dia de los Muertos preceded Spanish colonization. It is an indigenous ritual, which, over the years, has been adopted by the Mexican Catholic Church. It felt to us like a spiritual pagan celebration.
Outside the cemetery were displays of intricately designed pictures made from sand, pigments, and flowers. As we made our way back to the center square, more crowds gathered and performers in indigenous garb rehearsed their dances off to the side of the soon-to-be stage. A high school band played music as the bleachers filled up. We found seats and, as dusk crept in, got to enjoy a fun display of dancing.
Random, invisible fireworks punctuated the festive atmosphere. In the dark, Gaby went to meet her family at her nephew’s grave; she planned to be there until 4am spending time with his spirit, his memory. We headed back to our car. Many Mexicans would be up all night. We were in bed by ten, listening to the loud booms of fireworks as we fell asleep.
Our final Dia de los Muertos stop was the San Felipe del Agua cemetery. San Felipe is the neighborhood in which we live. It was Friday, November 2. The streets were quiet. We spent the day together as a family. At one point in the morning, the kids and I walked to the center square, hoping to buy some vegetables at the outdoor market. But, of course, there was no market on this day. Instead, we sat down on the curb and played a few rounds of the animal guessing game (our family’s version of twenty questions, limited to animals). Late in the cloudy, cool afternoon, we all walked to the local cemetery.
The three-quarters of a mile walk didn’t faze Micah or Zola. It’s roughly the distance that they walk each way to school and they’ve gotten quite used to it. When we arrived at the cemetery, we were surprised to see the street cordoned off and large tarps draped near the entrance. Tables were set up near vendors of food and drink. Ok, so not all businesses were closed. These vendors were feeding the hundreds, if not thousands(?) of people who were visiting the small cemetery that day.
Inside the cemetery, we were met with even more beautiful displays of flowers than we’d seen in Xoxo. Some people were decorating grave plots, others had brought in folding chairs and were just spending time there. A vigil was taking place in one corner. Quietly, holding hands two-by-two, we wandered through the cemetery, soaking it all in.
Two days after most of you celebrated Halloween in the States, Mexicans celebrated the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The imagery conjured up by a name like that might lead you to believe that the two holidays are birds of a feather. But you’d be wrong. While Halloween in the States has morphed into a holiday driven by commercialism, the Day of the Dead in Mexico retains its spiritual roots.