En Via, Festivals, Indigenous Culture, Mexico, Oaxaca, Oaxaca life, Teotitlan del Valle, Women Borrowers

Death Takes a Holiday

By Susan Bean Aycock, Fundación En Vía volunteer

For 24 hours starting at 3 p.m. on November 1, the cemetery of Teotitlán del Valle was empty — the departed had a day-long pass to visit their homes and families. At least that’s the belief of the people there, celebrating a long tradition of the indigenous Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) that was handily moved onto All Saints Day by those Spanish conquistadors who wanted things more neatly packaged on their own holiday schedule.

The panteón in Teotitlán del Valle, adorned for Día de los Muertos


As Fundación En Vía volunteers, Micky and I were guiding one of several special Day of the Dead tours sponsored by the locally-created microfinancing organization this year. Proceeds from the English-speaking participants go into the loan pot; this was a special holiday tour to understand more of one family’s celebration on this most important of Mexican holidays.

It’s a little bit of Christmas, homecoming, Halloween and Mardi Gras rolled into a celebration that doesn’t celebrate death, but is a time for remembering the lives and memories of our departed friends and family. It’s the time of year when most Mexicans come home, because home is where the spirits of the departed (los difuntos) are going to come when they get their pass from the panteón, the cemetery.

Our En Vía tour group, borrower Licha front and center with two of her children

Our group of 11 participants – a group of family and friends celebrating a 50th birthday in a wonderful way — travelled the 30 minutes or so to Teotitlán del Valle by van to the home of Licha, who showed us some of the traditional chocolate making process to make the hot chocolate served with pan de muertos on this holiday.

Licha roasting cacao beans

She showed us how to toast the cocoa beans on an open comal, brought out a large stone metate and then laughed. “We don’t always grind it up at home any more,” she said, “because there’s a mill in town now that does it so much more quickly.” (We still got to taste the hot chocolate and bread). Licha rode with our van over to the house of her sister Silvia, who along with their mother Crispina are in the same En Via loan group.

Ingredients for making chocolate

Silvia and her husband Agostín shared the family traditions behind their ofrenda, the special offering on the altar that is always part of the living room – which features a wooden saint that her great-great grandparents brought here more than 100 years ago. There are traditional elements for Day of the Dead: candles to light the way from the afterworld back to this one, food (peanuts, egg bread and little apples) because it’s been a long trip and they’ll be hungry, and especially their favorite drinks – usually mezcal – because of course they’ll want to celebrate being home with the family again. And the family will want to celebrate their return as well.

Crispina with daughter Silvia, who form a borrowing group with other daughter Licha

The meal would be yellow chicken mole tamales, only yellow, Silvia explained – because strange things had happened when a family of “non believers” didn’t serve them and their special altar candle had fallen over and broken. They knew the muertos would have come because the food on the altar would have diminished in the night. And the family would thoughtfully put out a petate (straw mat) in front of the alter just in case the muertos (or their living family members) drank a little too much mezcal and needed a lie-down before journeying on.

The grave of Licha’s grandfather

As per town tradition, the firecrackers went off at 3 p.m. sharp and church bells began ringing to celebrate the arrival of the muertos. The bells would be rung without ceasing for the next 24 hours, when the difuntos had to be back at the panteón, where the celebrating would go on all night. For the next two days, it would be a fiesta of not working (more strange things had happened to those who didn’t believe in taking off work, confided Silvia), and paying respects to family and friends at their houses, where there would be more food and mezcal.

I’ll be back to Teotitlán for sure for the holiday next year (or as Mexicans say, dios mediante, god willing, not to jinx the universe or presume that I actually have any control over the future). I just won’t be at the cemetery from 3 p.m on November 1 to 3 p.m on November 2. There won’t be anybody home.


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