When the Dead come home in Mexico
There’s more to Mexico's Day of the Dead festival than colourful masks
It’s the wedding party from hell. The bride’s make-up is ruined and there’s blood on her dress.
The pasty-faced groom is wielding an axe and the flower girl looks like Linda Blair in a scene from The Exorcist. Even the priest could pass for an undertaker.
Yet here I am, an outsider, dancing with the family and sharing tequila shots with the bridesmaids.
Mexico’s El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is everything you want a festival to be, and then some – colourful, mystical, joyous, inclusive, satirical, political, contradictory and totally life-affirming. And instead of watching the parade from the sidelines, I’m in the thick of it.
We’d gathered in Etla Valley, a largely indigenous community on the outskirts of Oaxaca (pronounced ‘Wa-haa-ka’) in Southeast Mexico, just as the setting sun was casting its golden rays across the fields.
With our garish costumes and painted faces, we’d fallen into step behind the brass band, cavorting with corpses, gamboling with ghouls and shaking our maracas with enough force to awaken the dead.
Just don’t go calling The Day of the Dead a Mexican version of Halloween, as the tradition originated several thousand years ago with the Aztecs as a way to celebrate and honour passed loved ones.
Today, the departed are still considered members of the community, with their souls returning to Earth temporarily between 31 October and 2 November when the veil between the living and dead is the thinnest.
Since the journey from the underworld is long and arduous, a week of rituals is needed to help guide the spirits back: elaborate altars are built, pan de muertos (Bread of the Dead) is baked and all-night cemetery vigils held. On the final evening everyone breaks into party mode, acknowledging that death is part of life, love is eternal and that the gift of life must be celebrated.
My own journey had begun a week earlier when I’d flown from Mexico City to Oaxaca, a city where traditions are still intact and unexploited by commercialism. By heading to a remote region, travelling slowly and joining G Adventures on a National Geographic Journey seven-day Mexico’s Day of the Dead in Oaxaca tour I was hoping to learn more about the tradition than a whistle-stop visit would afford. But first I must be cleansed.
A two-hour drive brings us to Capulalpam de Méndez, one of Mexico’s designated Pueblos Magicos (magical towns) high in the Sierra Madre Oriental. Cloaked in lush forests and stippled with misty mountains, the region is the perfect hiding spot for rare birds, jaguars, white-tailed deer and shamans. The shamans of Capulalpam are known as curandero, a line of female-only healers whose customs stretch back 1200 years.
“The people of this village still abide by traditional Zapotec laws and continue to speak the ancient language,” explains our guide Andrea Betanzos. “They believe that women hold the healing powers, and that it is passed from mother to daughter.”
Judging by the scowl on the curandero’s face I’m in serious need of some spiritual healing. The first ‘tut-tut’ comes when the chicken egg she is rubbing across my skull cracks in two. For this travesty I’m smoked with charcoal, spat on with sugarcane rum and rubbed within an inch of my life with a second egg.
The next ‘tut-tut’ comes when she breaks the egg into a glass of water and the yolk sinks like a stone. Through the interpreter I learn that this means someone is holding dark thoughts against me but, thankfully, the fresh egg has removed the negative energy.
After stomping on some herbs (to crush the evil forces) I’m free to go, with a newfound spring in my step. I meet the Zapotecs again the next morning at the Monte Albán ruins, the ancient city founded in 500BC by the indigenous pre-Columbian civilisation that once flourished in these hilly parts.
Situated on a flattened mountaintop, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is dotted with the remains of altars, temples, palaces, patios and platforms. With legs and lungs on fire we scramble amid the ruins, learning how the Zapotecs buried loved ones under their houses, a precursor for the modern-day equivalent of keeping decorative altars in the family home.
Back in Oaxaca we are invited to watch families constructing oversized altars as part of the preparations for El Día de los Muertos. Photos of the deceased are displayed alongside candles, marigolds, favourite foods and drinking water (the spiritual journey is a thirsty one).
The customs are so multi-layered that, in 2008, UNESCO inscribed the festival on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Daily parades burst forth like exploding piñata – one afternoon the children dress as devils and she-wolves and, on another, clans from various indigenous groups take to the streets.
There’s even a parade for pets, their wagging tails and goofy grins adding to the carnival atmosphere. With our local guide acting as a conduit, we connect even more deeply with the culture – making guacamole in a family home, joining artisans in their workshops and buying sugar skulls from the markets.
My sense of privilege at being here is compounded when we are invited to visit not one, but two village cemeteries on the eve of the main parade. While celebrations vary from place to place, 31 October is recognised as the night when angelitos or ‘little angels’ return to Earth and stay throughout the day visiting their families.
The spirits of adults visit the following day. It is near midnight when we enter the small cemetery in the indigenous village of Atzompa. The people are humble and most of the graves are simple earthen mounds with wooden crosses, yet on this night they are resplendent in the glow of a thousand flickering candles.
“Families have been saving all year to buy these candles,” says Andrea, pointing to an elderly lady burdened by an armful of branch-sized candles. Families sit on stools, gathered in knots around each grave.
Many are laughing and sharing jokes, others are cooking on open stoves and drinking tequila, and some are weeping, silhouetted in the dark like marble statues. We don’t intrude; rather we maunder on the fringe, adding candles and flowers to those graves without visitors, each of us adrift in our own thoughts about the people we have loved and lost.
People once here as vitally alive as we are. The next day, 1 November, is the time for costumes and masks. Under the hands of a skilled artist I’m transformed into a two-faced corpse bride while others emerge as La Catrina, a skeleton form of an upper-class woman and one of the most prominent figures in the Day of the Dead celebrations.
Joining demons and devils, vampires and wolves, we take to the streets, spinning under a van Gogh sky, each of us part of a constellation of gypsy souls burning brightly for this brief moment in time. It may be the Day of the Dead, but I have never felt more alive. •
Photography by Kerry van der Jagt.
United Airlines flies directly from Sydney to Houston, USA (or via Los Angeles from Melbourne) with connections to Oaxaca, Mexico. united.com
National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures offers a seven-day Day of the Dead tour coinciding with the annual festival in Oaxaca, Mexico. The next tour begins 28 October, 2018. gadventures.com.au