Dias de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is always a vibrant and exciting time of year to visit Mexico. Oaxaca is particularly renowned for its festive atmosphere and welcoming locals. This year, Fundacion En Via was able to provide a uniquely personal Dia de Los Muertos experience to a lucky few, whom joined our tours over the weekend. As we visited with women in our program we were invited to participate in the preparations and customs of Dia de Los Muertos; from making Mole and chocolate to visiting the local panteón (graveyard). It was a very special time that provided real insight into the tradition.
In essence, day of the dead is an opportunity to remember those who have passed. Unlike other parts of the world, this remembrance is not imbued with feelings of sorrow. Instead, it is an opportunity to communicate and spend time with family no longer present and hence, it is about inclusion rather than loss. In fact the atmosphere is quite festive, as one might expect at a family gathering. Originally it was custom that family members who passed within the year were not included. Traditionally this occurred because the skulls of the deceased were brought to the home altar and sufficient time was required for bones to be in a moveable state. This practice of movement no longer occurs and now some families choose to include recently deceased in the celebrations while others consider within a year to be too soon and still within the period of mourning.
We visited with a group of three women who are part of Fundacion En Via’s no interest loan program on Saturday, November 2. The group was made up of two sisters, and their sister-in-law. The family lives in the town of Teotitlan del Valle, an approximately 40 minutes drive outside of Oaxaca city on the highway to Mitla. I was lucky enough to be a guide on the tour along with Samantha and we had 10 guests join us from the United States, Australia, Wales and Hong Kong.
Preparations had begun on the Thursday morning (October 31). Their mother had attended the family gravesite to clean and leave ofrendas (offerings) of Cempasúchil (marigolds flowers), fruit and nuts. The permanent altar in the family home, that is located in the receiving room, was prepared Friday morning. We were told it was traditional for the women to prepare the comida (food) and ofrendas, while the men arrange the altar. The painting of Mary and floral arrangements either side (that can be seen in the photograph above) are permanent fixtures. The ofrendas included velas (candles), pan de muerto (a yolk bread decorated with a woman’s face crafted out of icing) and copal (incense made of tree resin to keep bad spirits away) were additions for the occasion. Further more, favoured items of the deceased were added, in this case; sopa de higaditos (a chicken and egg soup), mezcal, cerveza, tamal, and tortillas.
At 3pm on Friday afternoon the bells of the local church of Teotitlan, La Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (the precious blood of Christ), began to ring. This signaled the arrival of the dead. The church bells rang continuously for the following 24 hours. A group of 10 young men around the age of 15 are selected to be the bell ringers. They take shifts of 3 hours in groups of three throughout the period. It is considered an honour to be selected for the task. A son of the household had been selected two years prior to perform the duty when he was 13 years old. He said he was proud to be selected and it was a lot of fun to stay up all night ringing the bells.
Throughout the afternoon and evening visitors stop by to pay respects. It is customary to bring and light a candle. People generally may also bring offerings of fruit, chocolate, and flowers to add to the alter (we had brought Cempasúchil and pan de muerto for the family). Everyone sits together and has traditional food such as: chocolate y pan, mole or tamal.
We were given a demonstration of how to make mole – which I had no idea contained so many ingredients! The first stage is to roast all ingredients on a comal (clay topped wood fired oven), separately or in small bunches. Apparently, the contents of Eugenia’s mole rojo (red mole) and mole negro (black mole) contain the same ingredients, she just chars all of the ingredients of the mole negro. We were making mole negro so all ingredients had to be sufficiently toasted including; onion, garlic, 3 types of chillis, allspice, sesame seeds, almonds, cinnamon, raisins, thyme, chilli seeds, nutmeg and ginger. Once roasted the ingredients are combined and ground and then finally slow cooked all together with oil, chocolate and sugar for at least two hours. The results are delicious, but being so labour intensive I can understand why the dish is reserved for special occasions! We were served mole con pollo y arroz (chicken and rice with black mole sauce), agua de Jamaica (hibiscus water) y mezcal.
At 3pm on Saturday afternoon the bells stopped ringing and fireworks were lit off signaling the return of the dead to the panteóns. The copal incessant was lit in front of the altar along with the candles. Eventually the room was filled with smoke, which lofted and trailed about out the door. It is said the smoke guides the dead back to the panteóns. At this time the family accompanies the spirits back, and so there we joined them to the graveyard.
First visiting the adjoining church we watched a group of local men singing prayers. They too had been allocated the role and took shifts over the three-day period performing the necessary prayers. A brass band had assembled in the cemetery and were playing traditional funeral hymns. Long benches had been brought out from the church so visitors might sit with the band members.
The graves themselves were a beautiful site of colours and smells. The flowers and candles combined with the scent of rain was aromatic and slightly mystical. Family’s brought with them new offerings of fruit and nuts, and sat around he graves drinking mezcal and refrescos (soft drinks) or eating pan de muerto and drinking hot chocolate . They chatted and laughed taking the time to share with their deceased all the happenings and family gossip of the year passed. Everyone of the town greeted each other and we were made to feel very welcome in the space during such a private experience.
Upon returning to the family home we made hot chocolate in the traditional manner. The first step is to roast the cacao pods on the comal (a different clay cover is used to the one that had earlier toasted chilli!). Once cool the pods are cracked open and the inner cacao is ground by hand with cinnamon into a fine powder. This is then combined with water (traditionally, more common than milk) and stirred with a molinillo (special wooden Oaxacan spoon) to become nice and frothy.
After the last of the hot chocolate had been consumed, we thanked our hosts and headed back to Oaxaca city to take in the final comparsas (street parades), admire costumes or rest after an excitable but exhausting couple of days in Oaxaca.