Day of the dead in Oaxaca has surpassed any expectations I could have had. We ended up arriving late on Friday 31st to a main street full of processions of live bands, people dancing, face paint, traditional dress, virgin Marys, incense, fireworks and lots of merriment.The main street in Oaxaca leads down to the zocalo, the main square, where market stalls were set up with lots of traditional jewellery, ornaments and plenty of food. The bands in procession and on street corners included dead mariachi musicians, brass bands and many girls were dressed up in the traditional Oaxacan clothes, those typified by Frida Kahlo, with skulls painted on their faces.
Day of the dead celebrations in Mexico start on October 28th and last until November 3rd. By the 31st October, All Hallow’s Eve, there are elaborate altars everywhere inviting souls of loved ones to visit. At midnight on the 31st it is believed that the spirits of children and young people will return and so the emphasis is on commemorating and celebrating lost children during the 31st and 1st. November 1st is also known as ‘The Day of the Innocents’. The main event, the night of November the 2nd, is the night when souls of the dead return to earth and can be celebrated and helped in the afterlife by their loved ones. To this end people build altars in all the shops, homes and cemeteries offering the dead food, beer, flowers, candles and also practical goods. They will put on the altars favourite food and drinks of those that have passed. Bread is always offered and the traditional day of the dead bread includes a doll of Jesus, Mary or a skeleton and whoever gets that piece has to make everyone in the family tamales (a corn, fat and meat dish served in a corn leaf). These altars have become a bit competitive in Oaxaca and there are huge shrines in some shops and restaurants, showing off just how much they care for their dead. Many include photos of the dead or pictures of things they loved.
Around the city are sand sculptures with ladders to climb and look down over them. The sand sculptures will continue to be built over the next few days and what will emerge are elaborate designs depicting traditional Mexican images such as Mayans and corn with death incorporated into them. The Oaxacans love their corn more than most Mexicans it seems to me. They have it in everything including the hot chocolate.
The evening of the 1st is the biggest party. Gringos and locals alike are dressed up and there are people handing out free mezcal in bamboo shot cups which become our mezcal-begging cups for the next 2 days. I really like mezcal, it tastes cleaner than tequila and doesn’t leave you feeling so foggy the next day. Tequila is technically a type of mezcal as they are both made from fermenting agave. I take the advice of my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook and stick mostly to reposado (rested) or añejo (aged) which I conclude is excellent advice. Oaxaca is the home of mezcal and the locals are very pleased when you say you like their favourite tipple.
Our aim is to make it to the zocalo to get our faces painted and on the way, after being passed by a group of dead youths on pushbikes, we end up wandering into a local artisans’ shop where we are welcomed into the festivities. The shop workers and their friends and relatives are having their big party tonight. There are three huge altars in the centre of the shop. It’s more like a department store of several shops inside one big shop. We are welcomed in with free mezcal and tamales.
They put on a brief performance by men in fancy dress which frankly doesn’t make any sense to me but is apparently well-known lore.
We soak up the atmosphere and enjoy watching everyone dancing the night away while we warm up with mezcal. By the time we leave it’s too late for face paint so we head down to the main cemetery in town. It’s actually not got much going on inside the cemetery, there are only a few families holding vigil at graves, but the outside of the cemetery is a huge fair with ferris wheels, games and food stands. There’s a massive stage and a concert going on but we can’t go in without tickets. I have a go at winning a large plastic Virgin Mary with the face of a cabbage patch doll but, sadly, my aims not good enough.
The free mezcal keeps flowing and it’s useful because it does get chilly at night here. Everyone’s enjoying themselves and it’s amusing seeing all the sleepy children being carried home with faces painted so they look dead. Back in town we head to a mezcal bar the equivalent of which would be a dive pub in some working class suburb (I assume). We are the only gringos and naturally we’re fair game for men to ask us to dance. They keep putting modern mariachi tunes on the juke box, each time one comes on it is deafening and leads to cheers from the men- usually wearing double denim- and a few get up and stomp their feet. Modern mariachi music comprises of what I assume is synthesised trumpets and which I would compare to having a fly stuck in your ear or having an electric screwdriver placed in your ear and turned on. I am not going to miss it.
The next night is the main event. Tonight the souls of the dead will return to earth and their families will hold vigil at their graves all night. This time we do get our faces painted. The face painters appear to be Argentinian gypsies. The paint stings my eyes and they glue sequins on with paper glue. The next day I look like a turtle because the skin around my eyes is so dry I have aged around 30 years overnight.
They paint our faces to varying degrees of success. My friend Frida looks great. I look okay but my mouth is wonky and I am temporarily blind in one eye but my other friend, Bec, looks like a child has been let loose with crayons. Nevertheless, we get lots of comments of ‘muy bonita’ from the Mexicans.
At the empanada stall we get chatting to two Mexican guys who suggest we go to the Sant Felipe Panteon (cemetery) and we end up sharing a taxi there. I’m uncomfortable at first because I can’t see anyone else dressed up and wonder if we’ve made a faux pas. I soon see a few Mexicans with painted faces and before long we become our own tourist attraction with gringos and locals alike asking for photos with the three dead gringas. We decide to buy some marigolds as a gesture to our own dead friends and family and we find an untended grave and leave them on it.
The cemetery is an amazing sight. There are hundreds of people and nearly every grave is covered in orange marigolds, flowers and decorations. The smell of all the marigolds fills the air and makes everything look orange tinted. A brass band is doing the rounds and people pay to play at their relative’s grave so there is always music to keep spirits high. There is a gazebo set up with a full band, drum kit and all, by a few graves who appear to all be members of the same family and have a big crowd. We are taken there by our Mexican friends and crack open the mezcal and take it in turns to dance while one sits out with the mezcal bottle. I have my doubts about how respectful it is but quickly realise that the locals are enjoying our presence and the fact that we are dressed up and enjoying the celebrations. Children approach us regularly in the off chance of getting something and I have come prepared and hand out sweets like a skeletal Father Christmas. It feels good to be an active member of these events, not just an observer. I am glad that we made the time to think of our own dead and that those who were spending time with their dead were happy to have us there adding to the atmosphere. It’s what I hoped for and I’m grateful to the two girls with me who also wanted to participate alongside the Mexicans. Some gringos were wandering around drunk and shouting which made me cringe but fortunately most of these stuck to the bars in the centre. People are set up at the cemetery to stay the night but after a couple of hours we’re ready to head back to town and find some plantain with evaporated milk as late night snack- don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.
It has been an incredible experience to be part of the celebrations here. Oaxaca is one of the main places to celebrate and there are lots of Mexican tourists as well as many gringos, I haven’t heard so many English accents in a while. I didn’t expect it to be SO big and mad. The Mexicans go crazy for Halloween too and start celebrating on October 28th. In Puebla, on the night of the 30th, I fought my way through huge crowds of people with children everywhere begging for treats. Children covered themselves in fake blood with face paint and masks and lay in the middle of the street playing dead. Usually a friend, equally dead looking so they can swap places when it gets boring, sits with a pot begging for sweets or money in compensation for losing/ murdering their friend. When you drop in your offering the dead child springs back to life and immediately inspects what you’ve given to see if it’s good enough. It normally isn’t.
Spending Day of the Dead in Oaxaca has honestly been one of the best experiences of my life. During such a personal celebration for families it concerned me that, while I was always going to be a tourist, I wanted to integrate and show respect to the traditions and beliefs. Having like-minded people with me helped a lot but the locals were so welcoming and happy to have us there that it felt easy to feel genuinely part of the celebrations. I can only hope that I get to return for another week of Day of the Dead celebrations… who knows… maybe this could be in the afterlife?