Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

I know y'all want to read about the election, but that will be tomorrow when we know what happened. Suffice it to say that it's election day in the US and the Mexico City Airport is dead.
In the meantime, I will regale you with tales of my travels this past weekend in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, which kicks Halloween's butt big time.
Only in Mexico are the dead celebrated with such a mix of wistfulness and colorful joy. This being Mexico, we could not fathom which cemetery to go to on the eve of the holiday to see the families communing with their dead, because everybody had a different story. Nobody could agree on the date or the place, so we ended up at Oaxaca's main cemetery on the night of November first, which was a bit disappointing. Mind you, outside the cemetery it was fabulous. There was a mini-amusement park and of course, street food galore. We had to have our hot cakes de la calle, which for some mysterious reason we have never been able to ascertain, are the best pancakes on Earth. Nothing comes close to the feathery, fragrant taste of these things. I had my street pancake slathered with cajeta (the Mexican version of dulce de leche, made with goat milk) and had paroxysms of unbridled joy.
Inside the cemetery, however, there were many altars, but not that many people.
I had been to the Xoco cemetery years ago, a humble place where the poor humbly sit on the simple tombs and quietly commune with their muertitos. The big place in Oaxaca, where the grandees are buried, is not humble in style nor deed. There were a couple of obnoxious upper middle class families bringing Mariachis and screaming from one stone to another as if they were at a party. I don't believe this is the true spirit of this holiday. It seemed to me typical of the kind of arrogant Mexican who lords over the rest of them with a bit more money and much more vulgarity. But the next morning, after our visit to the elegant ruins of Monte Alban, we went, on our cab driver's recommendation, to the Xoco cemetery, which has an inscription in the entrance that reads, "You are dust and to dust you shall return". The pillars of the greek-looking entrance are painted a day-glo lime green, so it's all good. The Xoco cemetery was ablaze with orange and red flowers, bursting with cempazuchitl, the traditional, fragant flower of the Day of the Dead. The explosion of color was magnificent. Entire generations were watering the flowers, and lovingly cleaning and upkeeping the graves, eating and drinking quietly. The graves had gorgeous altars and some had carpets made of colored sand with effigies of Jesus or the Virgin. But what is most touching about Xoco is that the graves are so humble. No marble monuments there. No screaming nouveau riche vulgarians. The most lavish graves are covered in simple tile. Some of them are plain mounds of earth. I saw many graves of little children, all decorated lovingly with toys and balloons. And there were lots of living little ones at the cemetery. For Mexicans the idea of death is not something you shelter a child from. It's part of life. There we are, walking amongst the graves, when we run into an little old man selling ice cream from a cart. And then who else should turn up but a clown in full clownish regalia, selling balloons for the kids. A clown in the cemetery and nobody finds this in the least strange.
Just as the precolumbian traditions melded with the Catholic rite to create rituals such as this one, Halloween has been coopted by Mexicans in a unique way so that it is now part of the holiday as well. The entire weekend children were wearing scary disguises. Impoverished parents send their kids trick or treating tourists for money and it is all a bit overwhelming, because the poverty and the exploitation of children is natural and overwhelming. Certain altars at the graves had Halloween decorations -- ghosts, pumpkins, orange and black trim, and half the children were dressed as Tim Burton's characters from Nightmare before Xmas or Corpse Bride (but with traditional regional costumes). Once upon a time, one would decry these horrifying intrusions of American marketing into the glorious vernacular traditions, but to the Mexicans' credit, a) they don´t give a shit where it comes from as long as it suits their purposes, and b) they take these Disney garbage and turn it into something uniquely Mexican (sad, funny, sordid, morbid, bizarre, amazing).
Photos are coming soon.

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