What the hell was that… a gunshot? No, it was more of a thud than a crack. It sounded more like a firework, but it’s only nine-thirty in the morning. Wait, there’s a small cloud of white smoke up there. Yeah, someone just fired off a Monday morning firework.
That was our introduction to one of the biggest festivals in not only Oaxaca, but most of Central and Southern Mexico as well: Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead; and although contrary to its name, it’s actually a celebration of life. While the official festival begins on the 31st of October and goes through to November 2nd, unofficially it starts several days prior and continues another few afterwards. From the day we first touched down in Oaxaca, the town was vibrating. Buildings were decorated with marigolds and skeletons – the skeletons themselves dressed up in colourful attire. Ribbons and banners hung from windows, and painted faces walked the streets night and day; with fireworks booming at random from early morning until late into the night.
This isn’t going to serve as a guide to the festivities per se, as days later we ourselves are still trying to make sense of the chaotic week; but hopefully, it will help in breaking down a little about the festival itself, and what to look out for when visiting. Firstly, just to clear things up, the Day of the Dead is not Mexican Halloween. The traditions of the festival date back over 2000 years, but upon the arrival of the Spanish, the traditional festivities merged with the Catholic celebrations of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.During the days leading up to the celebration, reaching completion on the 31st, families and children build altars known as ofrendas, to honour lost loved ones. The brightly coloured and elaborate displays are decorated with orange and purple cloth and ribbon, marigolds, and sugar skulls. They typically include a photo of the deceased, as well as fruits and bread, and often a shot of tequila or mezcal or his/her favourite beer, offerings believed to be what the deceased liked most. These gifts are intended to draw their spirit to the altar, as it is believed that on the first and second of November, the gap between the land of the living and dead is the closest it will be for the whole year. During the first of November, Dia de los Innnocentes is the day where the souls of children are celebrated, while on the second, the official Dia de los Muertos recognizes the souls of adults.
Onto the actual festivities now. There isn’t one main event, one centralized location where everything goes down. The entire city of Oaxaca has events scattered around many different parts of town. Unfortunately, by the time we had figured this out, the festival was already in full swing, so we weren’t able to catch all of the events we’d like to have seen. Thankfully though, we were still able to see quite a few really great events near the Zocalo (main square) and surrounding areas. There were some traditional dances and historical displays at the Plaza de la Danza and the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, as well as some really great pop-up markets around both the central park and the Church of Santo Domingo.
Another main feature of the festival takes place at cemeteries, where families set up ofrendas at the gravesite of loved ones, and light candles in their honour. Candles are lit and often the entire cemetery glows an odd orange hue on the skull-painted faces of the living. We went to one of the main cemeteries near our area, but unfortunately, it was closed to the general public even before the sun had set. Thankfully though, a small carnival had been set up right next to it, which was an unexpected surprise! We still are unsure of the odd opening hours, perhaps things have gotten out of hand with too many tourists, maybe it was something else. As for the rest of the festivities, the most enjoyment we had were from the unofficial processions that seemed to appear out of nowhere at random locations, and at all hours of the day. Just follow your ears. The pumping melodies of brass and woodwind instruments would suddenly hit you from a distance, and if you’re lucky enough, they’ll be headed towards you. First, the band walks past: tubas and trombones lay down the bass lines, while trumpets, saxophones, and clarinets hit the melodies. Immediately following is either a crowd of costumed folk dancing along to the music; or sometimes several small pickup trucks with makeshift altars in the back, also engulfed by costumed dancers. Our first encounter with one of these impromptu parades was on Calle Macedonio Alcala, the main pedestrian road near the centre of town. It was one of those lucky moments, we just happened to be there as it moved towards us, seemingly out of nowhere. The oddest part, also one of the best, was that not only was it a hilariously cute parade of costumed children, but the kids were handing out candy to the spectators! So there we were, Chupa-Chups in our mouths, bobbing along to the Latin-jazz fusion as a bunch of tiny skeletons danced passed.Several of these parades occurred during the Days of the Dead and were probably our favourite part of the whole few days. I think more than anything, it was the randomness, the unexpected aspect that made it so enjoyable. We’d just be walking through town, maybe looking to grab lunch, or maybe an afternoon cerveza, and that unmistakable throaty tuba sound would resonate in the distance. At one point, we followed along side one of these parades and watched as handfuls of candy were being thrown not only into the procession, but from it, back into the crowd. Not just that, but one lady was pouring plastic cups of mezcal and handing them out at random to whoever would accept, including the drivers of the parade trucks. It was organized mayhem at ten-thirty in the morning.
Days after the celebration has ended, while fireworks still burst in the distance, the crowded streets appear to be returning to their pre-festival calm. While we weren’t able to take part in all of the shows and activities, Dia de los Muertos was an absolutely fantastic introduction to Oaxaca, and cannot wait to return for this festival in the future. As for now, we’ve just begun settling into our new home for the next few weeks, and have finally begun exploring this wonderful city and all it has to offer.
“Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.”David Searls