story and photos by John Lamkin
Death approached me in the guise of a skeleton wearing campesino garb, the clothing of a Mexican field worker. He offered me a drink of mescal from his gourd. Sure, why not! I was in the Oaxaca valley and it was the Day of the Dead, a celebration.
I grew up thinking of death as something other than a celebration. My first strong recollection of it was seeing my grandmother in her coffin. Who was this woman with pasty, pale makeup? Certainly not my grandmother with her plaid jacket, jeans and crooked walking stick, ready for a walk through woodland trails. I still keep that walking stick next to my front door, just in case I want to take that walk through the pines.
Here in Mexico, death has a different face. Once a year the difuntos, the departed friends and relatives are invited back for a big party–food, drink, music.
I arrived in the village of Teotitlán del Valle just in time for the Day of the Dead celebrations–November 1st and 2nd. Being fiesta preparation time, I got to watch a village matron, Alta Gracia fire up several barbecue pits with sizzling goat meat to be sold to the neighbors for the celebrations. I had the great fortune of being invited to attend the family’s pre-fiesta feast where I enjoyed barbecued meat served with several of her homemade sauces, ranging from mild, but tasty, to raging hot. It was an unforgettable meal, a meal that in itself would have made the trip worthwhile, and it whet my appetite for the actual Dias de Muertos, Day of the Dead, fiesta, for which I saw preparations being made all around.
The market hummed with fiesta activity and the soft sound of the Zapotec language spoken. Everywhere were flowers – especially marigolds, the favorite for Day of the Dead. There was sugar cane, special breads – some with small ceramic heads imbedded in them and some with words welcoming the dead, sugar skulls–everything needed to prepare the altar to entice the difuntos to return.
Adjacent to the market is a church that the Spanish built atop a Zapotec temple. Part of the temple is visible, and many stones in the church have ancient Zapotec symbols – deities and glyphs – carved in them, the same symbols that appear in many of the rug designs by the master weavers of this village.
For Day of the Dead, each family decorates its altar (which is a focal point of the home year round) with candles, flowers, food and photographs of departed relatives in anticipation of their return. They also set up a small altar nearby to commemorate the children who have died.
Church bells rang in the afternoon of the first day of the festival, announcing the arrival of the departed children. The next day the children leave and the adult difuntos come to visit the living.
In the evening of day two, I joined the revelers in the village cemetery to party with the returned dead who had left their loved ones’ houses and spirited to the cemetery, where a lively fiesta was going on with mariachi bands playing and plenty of mescal, beer and soda to drink. The cemetery as so full of flowers one could barely see the tombstones..
The festivities lasted well into the night, when the difuntos finally departed to await another year and another celebration of death and life.
In Spanish it is said, “Sin la muerte no seria vida.” Without death there would be no life.
IF YOU GO
The closest airport in the area is the Xoxocotlán International Airport (OAX) located about 15 miles west of Teotitlán del Valle in Oaxaca City, Mexico.
United Airlines has daily flights to Oaxaca City from its Houston hub.
Teotitlán del Valle is 15 miles (24 kilometers) southeast of Oaxaca City. Public transportation, taxis and tours are available from Oaxaca City.
A perfect time to visit the area is during the Day of the Dead, which is held during the last days of October and first days of November.
WHERE TO EAT
World renowned traditional Zapotec cuisine. Praised in the NY Times, Saveur, Fodor’s and others.
On the main street, Avenida Juárez #39
Phone: 52 (951) 524-4006
Open in the afternoons from 1-4pm, and closed on Mondays and Thursdays.
Good healthy, traditional Mexican and Zapotec food. They also have a weaving and gift shop.
Avenida Juárez #51
Phone: 52 (951) 524-4152
Open every day.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE VILLAGE
El Descanso has some bungalows. Inquire at the restaurant.
Las Granadas Bed and Breakfast
They host a 2-day immersion program for intermediate Spanish language students.
WHERE TO STAY IN OAXACA CITY
La Casa de Adobe
Hacienda Los Laureles
Mexico Tourism Board
John Lamkin is an award-winning travel journalist/photographer based in Taos, New Mexico. Look for his Oaxaca photographs to appear in a book authored by Examiner’s Susanna Starr and published by Paloma Blanca Press, to be released in early 2014.