Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
A series of juguetes shoot into the night, sending the neighborhood dogs into a barking frenzy. Bam, bam, bam – these handmade fireworks are liberally applied to the open skies of Oaxaca in order to announce birthdays, weddings and other notable events. Unlike traditional fireworks, they do not produce lightshows, but rather a high pitch whistle that ends with what sounds vaguely like gunfire. While no weddings are being announced in our near vicinity, the ongoing fireworks are currently present in order to kick off the Dia de los Muertos festivities in Oaxaca.
This Saturday night, the smoky aftermath of jugetes is interwoven with the scent of fresh cempasúchil (marigold) blooms that provide complementary hues to the scores of crimson borla (cockscomb) that blanket the city in velvety remembrance. My partner and I, along with two friends from New York City and Mexico City, are en route to Panteon Viejo De Xoxo.
Checking through our camera settings, we finally pull into a parking spot near the old section of the cemetery in Xoxo. As we enter the panteon, we move past dozens of families who are chatting over live banda music – some arranging flowers in intricate patterns overtop of gravestones and earth, while others snack on homemade delights and potent mezcal.
For those who are not familiar with the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration, the official timing runs every first and second day in November and serves as a point of reverence, respect and love of family.
It is believed that the scent of the prolific marigolds draw loved ones from their respective resting spots to join the fiestas that ensue around the altar offerings that are specific to the individual in question. These items include everything from lovely round breads with delicate white designs and tiny hand painted faces, to cigarettes, mezcal and favorite foods of departed loved ones.
More music by candlelight ensues, and after a few hours, we move onto the next fiesta at the house of a friend, with the morning arriving a little too soon.
The following day is spent in Mitla at the Méndez home – a family of weaving artisans who have been producing stunning textile work since 1920. After paying our respects to the family altar by adding in our offering of fruit, citrus bread and flowers, we dine on hot Oaxacan chocolate with pan de muertos, homemade mole negro with chicken that took a total of 15 days to prepare (seriously), along with a special mezcal that arrives at the table in a clear glass bottle.
After exchanging stories with the family and a steady stream of their friends, who all note that they are making the rounds of houses that night, we take our full bellies and move on to San Sebastián Etla for more festivities, dancing and delicacies.
Once in the pueblo, a devil dances with a priest in a gorilla mask, four men in mirrored capes hoot as they pass around cold beers, and announcements are made that it is safe to sleep in the street, for those who dance too long and miss their ride home. After shuffling our feet and ingesting some questionable mezcal, we run out of steam around 3am and head back to the city.
Wandering through Oaxaca on Monday, we witness a veritable canvas of color, with a slew of altars and paper mache figures filling every corner of the city. Skeletons dance on stilts as people bite into tiny chocolate skulls. Gaggles of white-faced Catrinas glide past us as we move through the street.
Given that this was my first year in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, I am pleased with how much I was able to experience over the long weekend. That said, my dancing feet and contact lens-covered eyes are less than impressed and sleep is in order.
I give my New York friend the choice of street tlayudas or snacks at home. We both agree that pajamas are the preferred dinner attire and off we go. My friend notes that she is exhausted, which highlights something that I already suspected – Oaxaca knows how to celebrate and is likely one of the few venues that could wear out a New Yorker.
At home, juguetes explode around us, inciting a symphony of dogs, once again. Marigold flowers crumple underfoot as we reflect on the music-filled festivities and focus on the upcoming snack time in our night attire.
To give a clear picture on the muertos experience, here is a list of the 2015 events.