If you've seen the movie Coco, you might guess that El Día de los Muertos is a wonderful, life-affirming time to visit Mexico, expecially if you can find a local family to take you under their wing.
I wrote this piece, about spontaneously spending the Day of the Dead with a local named Rafael and his family in Oaxaca, several years ago. It is based on an experience from 2004, when we spent six weeks backpacking around Mexico. Six years later, we returned to Oaxaca to study its cuisine and found Rafael, having saved his business card (see at bottom). Lots of hugs and mezcal were shared all around.
From my seat on a wooden bench outside the corner store, I took in the busy scene.
Children with painted faces dashed by. Families with wheelbarrows laden with flowers and tapered candles lumbered up the road. Food vendors lined the dusty path as far as I could see—an exciting array of cheap dinner prospects here in Oaxaca, the southern Mexico city known for its delicious, proudly regional cuisine.
I was waiting for my husband, Scott, who soon returned from the store with two cold beers. While we enjoyed them on the bench, a middle-aged man emerged from the same shop with a bag full of beer. Scott teased him about the purchase: “Those are all for you, or are you going to a party?”
The man guffawed, introduced himself as Rafael, and asked to join us in our people-watching. Cheerfully chatty, he said he owned one of the many jewelry stores we’d seen in the city’s commercial district. After offering us each another beer, he invited us to accompany him to the “party” he was en route to, a family gathering where there would be food and drink—just up the road at the graves of his brother and father.
Graveyards adorned, skeletons a-dancing
In the U.S., cemeteries are cold, gray places. You may carry flowers to a loved one’s grave, but probably not a bottle of booze. You certainly wouldn’t expect to run into a Ferris wheel, clusters of giggling children, or a live band playing music.
But in Mexico, that’s exactly what you might find in cemeteries during El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. The official “day” is November 2, but the festivities begin the night of October 31, which is when we met Rafael and the carnival-like atmosphere of a local cemetery, or panteón.
The holiday dates back centuries to the indigenous population of Mexico, who believed that the deceased could return to their homes or families for a visit once a year. To them, death was something to embrace rather than fear; it was not the end of a life, but the same life’s continuation in a parallel world. And every year on el Día de los Muertos, surviving family members are given the chance to show their love and respect for the deceased.
Kids break dancing on the streets of Oaxaca
Over the years, of course, the Day of the Dead has had to adapt to the changing times—namely, the Spanish conquest, the ensuing infiltration of Catholicism, and even Halloween’s candied influence. Yet despite their common belief in a Christian heaven, modern Mexicans still sit for hours, sometimes overnight, at their loved ones’ graves during the Day of the Dead to accompany their spirits for the night.
Among the rituals the holiday has preserved over the years are the elaborate preparations used to “welcome home” the deceased. Throughout October, countless fields of gleaming marigolds are harvested from the countryside and sold in city markets; the golden flowers are traditionally believed to help guide spirits back into this world. Markets fill with morditos, little gifts for the dead like chocolate skulls and coffins, and storefronts with calacas, whimsical skeletons engaged in everyday activities like cooking or dancing, mocking death from their perches on shelves.
A marigold field in the Oaxacan countryside
Besides its seven moles, Oaxaca is renowned for its artisans, and the Day of the Dead provides occasion for exceptional creativity. Images of death are found everywhere, so wonderfully rendered that they quickly grow on you. The calacas are particularly charming: Life-size and papier-mâché, they are mischievously engaged in getting married, playing music, and making tortillas in the courtyards of La Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca, a popular artisan shop; stretchy and wiry and $1 apiece, they dangle from the arms of old women in the zócalo; hand-carved and stoic, they’re sold alongside paintings of skulls at outdoor art markets.
Inside the Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca
Dazzling handmade ofrendas, or altars, designed to honor and welcome the dead spring up everywhere in bright bursts of color. Lovingly decorated with marigold arches, magenta coxcomb flowers, candles, photos, stacks of tortillas, cups of hot atole or bottles of tequila—whatever the deceased’s beverage of choice might have been—these altars are prominently displayed in restaurants and public plazas, and are glimpsed through open doorways and windows in every home.
An altar in Oaxaca
Is the Day of the Dead sad?
At the Panteón Xoxocotlan, aka Xoxo (“ho-ho”), we followed Rafael, picking our way around the graves, careful not to tread on them. It’s a challenge, because while most graves are concrete, coffin-shaped tombstones, some are no more than mounds of dirt and a small cross.
The level of activity was baffling. Whole families were sprawled on blankets and in plastic chairs around graves, diligently cleaning them before piling on candles and flowers, often in artistic religious designs. An old man sold pastel orbs of cotton candy. Costumed children ran over to us with upturned palms and plastic pumpkins. “Halloween?” they asked hopefully.
Rafael’s family was split between two graves—that of his father, deceased two years, and his brother, deceased nine years—and both were already adorned. We joined another of Rafael’s brothers, his wife, and their children at the father’s grave, around which two metal benches and a tin roof with an electric light had conveniently been built so the family can gather comfortably, rain or shine. The air was heavy with copal incense and flowers.
Rafael at his family's grave
I practiced my Spanish with Alberto, Rafael’s precocious 10-year-old nephew, and Rafael kept passing out cans of beer. Hours passed. The merry atmosphere was intoxicating—literally—but I felt keenly aware of the fact that we were hanging out in a graveyard. Nobody was even talking about the dead; our hosts were more interested in asking us questions. Weren’t we supposed to be remembering them?
“We remember just by being here,” Rafael informed me. “We come here to be with each other and to be with my father and brother in a spiritual way.”
But wasn’t it sad?
“Yes, but it’s good to be here,” he said. “We’re making new memories together, as a family.” He smiled, and I knew he included us in that group, for the night anyway.
The matriarch of the family joined us from her son’s grave, and Rafael’s sister arrived with—bless her soul— a big bucket of homemade tamales. They insisted on serving us, the guests, first. Carefully wrapped in cornhusk, the steaming masa inside concealed shredded chicken and the region’s famous mole negro. Scott got a present in his: a whole chicken foot. “The best part!” Rafael exclaimed.
Old family, new friends
Of course, despite our lighthearted graveyard experience, death isn’t only silly skeletons and pretty remembrances for Mexicans. Two days later, during an afternoon mass for the dead in the same cemetery, many tears were shed. In the middle of it, a strange and sudden change came over the weather: Dark clouds seized the sky; a high wind blew dust from the street into our eyes. The rain fell hard and fast, without warning.
We sought shelter at Rafael’s father’s grave, huddling for dry warmth under the flimsy tin roof; young Alberto kept trying to give me the T-shirt off his back. A short distance away, a new burial began, the bereaved family braving the elements. Through the rushing downpour, I caught the moans and sobs of raw grief.
But for that first night of Día de los Muertos, it was OK to leave the vulnerability behind and celebrate the dead, among old family and new friends. When Rafael offered to drive us home late that night, we hesitated, knowing he’d put back a few beers. His whole family assured us he was fine to drive the short distance to our guesthouse; several hours and many tamales had passed since our arrival. We weren’t sure if we could even find a taxi back to town at that hour, so we conceded.
In the front seat of his pick-up truck, I secured the single seatbelt around Scott and myself, to Rafael’s amusement. He drove slowly and took back roads, where we hardly even glimpsed another vehicle. “See? I’m a good driver,” he insisted.
Did I feel at risk? Not really. But giggling at his assurances, I couldn’t help but fancy myself in the Mexican way, laughing ever so softly in the face of death.
Reuniting over mezcal in the back of Rafael's jewelry store, 2010