The day of the dead in Oaxaca, Mexico is the 1st and 2nd of November but for me it starts with the first cool breeze that descends from the northern mountains and brings to me feelings of inexplicable joy. I truly have no idea where these feelings come from. I have asked myself this question for years now and I have given up trying to find out. Magic, happiness and mystery fill the skies and the very air I breathe at this time of the year. It’s time to take a trip.
Riding out from Oaxaca City, where I live, to Tlacolula, where my extended family lives, becomes a crossing into another world at this time of year. I observe through half-closed eyes as the early morning sun rises over the mist covered mountains bathing the valley in diffused golden light. As I look to my sides I catch a glimpse of the marigolds in the open fields… the only time of year that you can see them. I open the window of my taxi and let the cool air invade my very being as I close my eyes and smell the Earth. The crispness, the freshness and a penetrating feeling of well-being make me think I am still in my bed dreaming. I want to jump out of the moving car and run up the mountains that are just a short distance from my outstretched arms. Overwhelmed by feelings, I sit back in my seat… just to be.
Sooner than I know it the 30 minute trip comes to it’s end and I ease out of the car onto the sidewalk, pay my 15 pesos and head into the heart of Tlacolula. The HEART of Tlacolula has a whole new and very real meaning this time of year because, unlike the rest of the year, you can feel the love. It reminds me of New York City at Christmas. People filled with good intentions taking the time to be warmer and closer than at other times of the year.
The Day of the Dead in Tlacolula, (and many other towns), is all about family. Houses have their doors wide open all day awaiting the arrival of their family members, many of whom they haven’t seen since the year before. The marketplace is abuzz, more so than usual these days, as the indigenous people from neighbouring towns, dressed in their typical, colourful clothing, swarm down with their merchandise in hopes of a good day.
Walking up Juarez Ave., which is the main street in Tlacolula, completely captivates my 5 senses… especially my nose. Scents of flowers, incense, fresh butter bread, ground chocolate and mole sauce whisp around me playfully as if they had a life of their own. People smile and say “Buenos d?as” to me as they dart about town buying what they need to prepare their elaborate meals and make their family altars.
It seems that nothing can dampen my spirits as I arrive to my destination. Of course the door is open so I just walk in. Entering, I immediately get encompassed by the smoke of copal incense and I see the family dog approaching from the other side of the house to say hi as always. With a quick pet and a scratch behind the ear, I go into the dimly lit living room which, in the houses in Tlacolula, can be quite large. Grandchildren, sons, daughters, aunts and uncles are placing flowers on the floor filling up a long rectangular area made out of apples, pears, roasted peanuts and bananas. The youngest of the family carefully places the black and white photographs of the deceased members of the family on the altar tucked snugly between the fruit and the flowers. I notice that the altar is strategically placed against the wall and right under the picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe and after saying hi, they ask me to help them.
I find myself as the go between, delivering the food from the kitchen to the altar. I hand the women the plates filled with sweet bread and frothy hot chocolate and they place them carefully in front of the photographs of their family members. When all 6 members of the family are served we all sit down at the nearby table and eat the same.
As we eat, other family members arrive, bringing food offerings. They stand in front of the altar and murmur a few words of pray and the children do the same but really only go through the motions, still lacking the experience of loss at their young age. The new arrivals sit with us at the long table and are served breakfast but since they have already visited 3 other houses and are pretty full, they only take a few courtesy bites of their bread and a few sips of their hot chocolate so as not to offend their hosts and after a polite conversation they say goodbye.
This goes on throughout the day and I give them a hand doing the same for lunch and supper as well. No one goes to work or school on these days so the house has the whole family present and in between meals and visits there is laughing, joking, watching movies, playing soccer in the patio, trips to the market and, of course, lots of cooking. It is quite festive.
It begins to get cold when the sun starts to set and even without going into the kitchen, I know that there is hot coffee and atole being kept warm over a low flame on the stove. I step out of the bedroom, zip up my jacket and walk across the patio to the kitchen. I notice that my son is in the living room putting more decorations on the little alter that he made for his Maltese puppy that died in an accident the year before. Now that it is night time, candles are lit on the altar and it’s soft yellow light casts long shadows in the room which adds to the otherworldliness that was already so present.
Arriving to the kitchen, my suspicions are confirmed. The coffee and atole are warm and ready to be drunk. I decide on the coffee though because atole can be filling and I am already pretty full, (because I have been eating non-stop all day). The coffee just flows down into my body, shoeing away all the cold of the night and I step out onto the patio, cupping my coffee in my hands. I look at the night sky filled with stars as my son runs over to me, hugs me and places his head on my chest. I feel so grateful to be alive, now, at this time… the time of the dead… the time when I’ve never felt more alive.