The Days of the Dead  

October 31 to November 2

Evening of October 31, 2000
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The last few days have been just a whirlwind of activity. Along with attending our classes we have been very involved in the celebrations for the Dias de Los Muertos.

On the 31st, what is traditionally Halloween in the U.S., the Mexicans celebrate the day of Los Angelitas, the little angels. This day is for the remembrance and celebrating of the life of those children who have already passed on. At noon, the church bells begin to ring and continue for about 10 minutes. This signals the arrival and welcoming of the souls of the children.

During our morning class, we took our conversational practice on the road and went back to the central market area to buy some final items to add to our school altar. When the bells began to ring, we were in the central market and were able to watch the church bells be rung by hand. One of the items we purchased was some fresh made chocolate, and I do mean fresh.

Chocolate, or rather Cocoa is a major crop grown in the area. All around the market are stores in which to buy the roasted cocoa beans and then we all watched as the beans were ground up and became a thick, liquid chocolate. After we returned from the market, we used our hands to shape the chocolate into balls, bars and skeletal faces.

The market was full of people who were buying flowers, incense, candles, food and just about anything else you could imagine with which to build their family altars with more to place on the graves of their loved ones.

As night fell, we met our maestro (teacher) and walked across town to the Panteon San Miguel, the municipal cemetery. Although it is a bit strange to be wandering around a cemetery at night, it was an impressive sight as the tombs were lit with what must have been two thousand candles. The tombs are in niches, 6 high, in the walls around the cemetery. We located many dates, some as old as the 1870’s.

In addition to the candles, the main draw this night is the viewing of the sand tapestries and the family altars constructed for the holiday. This day was a wonderful way to begin the festivities, yet after a long day, and an even longer walk back to our apartment, we knew we’d sleep soundly.

 

November 1, 2000

On this second evening of Las Dias de Los Muertos we hired a taxi to take us to the outlying pueblo (village) of Xoxocotlan (simply abbreviated as ho-ho) to explore the old cemetery. Most of the burials here have not just a headstone, but also raised platforms with small altars built in. The graves had been lovingly cleaned before the ceremony were covered with beautiful flowers and candles.

As we explored the cemetery, we were invited by families to view the graves of their departed and to photograph the tapestries they made on the graves. Most of the tapestries are religious in nature as the Catholic Church long ago combined the pre-hispanic traditions of the holiday with the religious holiday of All Saints Day.

After visiting Xoxo, we returned to the Panteon San Miguel. Here we visited with several families who were celebrating the return of their departed family members. At the first grave, the family was sitting together and singing the favorite songs of the departed accompanied by a guitar. It was a very private and moving experience. At the second grave, a very large extended family was celebrating with a Mariachi band, a group of horn players and lots of food and drink. Theirs was a raucous celebration and was quite fun. After enjoying these two different ways of celebrating, we made our way home.

 

November 2, 2000

On this third and final day of the celebration, we spent the afternoon at the home of Senor and Senora Rafael. They live in a pueblo just outside of the city of Oaxaca called San Augustin. We joined them in their celebration for their departed family members by sharing a meal of Atole (a drink made with chocolate, rice and water), bread and chicken mole negro, all traditional food items for the Days of the Dead. Mole negro is a sauce made from chiles, chocolate and spices. Preparing it is a very time consuming task and it was an honor to be asked to share it with the family. Food is a very important element of the celebration and much time is spent preparing the traditional items.

After our meal, we joined the family on a walk to the local cemetery to place an additional candle on the grave of Senor Rafael’s parents. His parents were buried in a large mausoleum at the center of the cemetery and he explained to us that his father was a large landowner in the pueblo and had contributed to restoring the local church. As a tribute, his family was given the central plot in the cemetery.

While at the cemetery, we met another family who was visiting graves of family members and spoke to them for a short while. This family were long time residents of the pueblo with their roots going back at least 5 generations. In fact, they were Zapotec Indians so they could probably follow their family tree all the way back to the time of Monte Alban, about 100BC. At the conclusion of our conversation, they shared some of their homemade mezcal with us. It was really strong but we felt honored to be asked to join them.

This was a fitting ending to our celebration of the Days of the Dead. We were included in some very personal and moving celebrations, we shopped in the mercados for traditional food and items for our school ofrenda, we built the ofrenda and we shopped for ingredients for and learned how to make mole. We celebrated with families and shared their meals and stories. We felt very included in this very special Mexican holiday.


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