The Day of the Dead is a big deal in Mexico, nowhere more so than in the southern city of Oaxaca. Celebrated at the end of October and beginning of November each year, the festival focuses on the dead, and the whole town gets involved in some way. What I didn’t bargain for was how involved I’d get as well.
Arriving a few days before the main celebrations, work was beginning to get underway on the altars. Each family creates an altar to tempt their ancestors’ spirits back to earth. I’d been in touch with Mariana from a small hotel called Las Bugambilias and she’d invited me to join them. In the courtyard, stood a life-sized model of Catrina, the mascot of the Day of the Dead. This figure took the form of a skeleton dressed in elegant clothing, dripping in furs or, in this case, feather boas, strings of beads draped around her neck and an elegant cigarette holder in her hand.
With a small group of fellow tourists and under Mariana’s expert guidance, we set about creating their altar. Each of us had been allocated a specific task: some threaded marigold blooms onto strings; others dusted icing sugar skulls in the yard to form a pathway to the altar. My job was to create a centrepiece cross of white carnations and dot it with tiny purple buds. Mariana was a perfectionist, but after her intervention, the cross really did look perfect.
After several hours of preparation, the altar began to take shape. Loose marigold petals defined the path, their pungent aroma pervading the tiny courtyard. The altar itself was decorated with candles, fruit, nuts, incense and brightly coloured bunting. Sepia photographs of family ancestors peeked out from behind yet more marigolds. Finally, we’d finished, and to celebrate, out came a bottle of Mezcal for a toast, to our efforts and to the ancestors we’d honoured. I raised a glass to my grandparents, wedged between a bicycle candleholder and a lime and pledged to myself and to them that I would make an effort this time next year to recreate this feeling.
The following evening, a group of us headed for the cemetery. On the night of 31st October, the old and new cemeteries in Xoxocotlan, on the outskirts of Oaxaca, are full of people tending graves, laying out flowers and other offerings and lighting candles in memory of their deceased relatives. Many families stay all night. I wandered amongst the graves in the packed old cemetery, taking care not to trip over tree roots. Vibrant scarlet gladioli added a splash of colour to the warm amber tones of the candlelit cemetery whilst white canna lilies added grandeur. Orange marigolds, because of sheer numbers, dominated the scene. Some graves were a hive of activity; at others, the mood of the relatives was more reflective. I was warmly welcomed, invited to share a spot at several gravesides.
At the new cemetery, there was more of a party atmosphere. Fluorescent wands poked out of pushchairs as lovestruck teenagers sneaked a kiss behind their parents’ backs. Small children munched on sugar skulls and sucked skull lollipops. The sounds of Michael Jackson’s Thriller boomed from a loudspeaker, almost masking the cries of the many hawkers selling snacks and party treats. At the edge of the cemetery, a funfair had been set up with the usual stalls and rides. If it hadn’t been for the tombstones, it would have been easy to forget you were in a cemetery at all.
Comparsas (local groups) parade all night through the streets in costume, celebrating the return of the ancestors with music and dancing. The following evening, I opted to head out of town to the village of San Agustin Etla, where I’d heard the parade was second to none. Anticipation mounted as a crowd gathered in the narrow lane. Eventually the procession reached the village, an eclectic band of ogres, devils and monsters, each with a costume more fantastic than the last. There were ghouls with terrifyingly realistic make up alongside drag queens with pink hair. The devil carried his scythe, passing a ‘Panteonero’, someone from the pantheon, whose eyeball was missing.
Somehow because of the crowds, most were freakish rather than scary, but they were all to be commended for their efforts. As the final performer arrived, in one corner of the village square, a play was being re-enacted. Many of those in the parade weren’t needed, however, and had planted themselves against walls and on kerbstones to have a much-needed drink. My Spanish limited, I wandered amongst them, posing with them for photos and trying on some of the heavy costumes.
As the evening wore on, a chill settled on the air and the Mezcal came out again. Passing the bottle round, glasses were raised.
“Salud!” Compared to the sombre way we remembered our deceased back home, the Mexicans embraced their spirits, celebrating with them and having fun in the same way they would have done when they were alive. I decided my grandparents would have given it the thumbs up.