In 10th grade, a high school requirement forced me to chose a foreign language to study. Being a creature of practical motivation, I chose Spanish. I didn’t expect to get anything out of the class but that simple choice was one that changed the course of my life forever.
Several weeks into Spanish 101, my teacher got a little sidetracked explaining the Méxican holiday, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). She told us this holiday was to remember those who had passed away and explained that on the 1st and 2nd of November, the spirits of loved ones returned to Earth. After I saw just a few pictures of decorated streets, made up altars and vibrant costumes, I was intrigued.
What really made this tradition take seed in my soul was the sweet way it made peace with death. One of the largest celebrations in México, lasting for a week or so, takes the emphasis away from death and instead celebrates life. Believers make altars in their homes, gardens and city centers to guide their loved ones back home. The items placed on the altars are the favorite foods and items of their deceased loved ones; coke, fruits, toys, cookies, and of course plenty of flowers.
Not far into my study of the Spanish language, I resolved to go to México to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. As it turns out, six years later, I did.
Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca (pronounced, “WAH-HAH-KAH”)
Six years after initially learning about the holiday, I finally traveled to México to see and experience the festivities first hand. I chose Oaxaca because I heard the celebration is longer and people are generally more enthusiastic. By using Couchsurfing, I made a friend, named Ever, and I stayed with his family just outside of the downtown area. I told them all that celebrating Dia de Muertos had been a goal of mine for years.
I was hoping they could help me celebrate in all the most authentic ways possible. They were more than happy to oblige.
First, I told them I wanted to paint my face like a sugar skull and the parents said, “why? Your face is so pretty. Don’t cover it up.” That was the sweetest thing! I actually felt like family. But I had to paint my face because it was Dia de los Muertos!!!!
What I loved about this family situation is that Ever’s parents knew we would be out late, and possibly drinking and having all sorts of shenanigans, and we didn’t have to make up an alibi. That’s just the nature of the celebration; everyone parties because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
I had the perfect dress to wear, just the perfect mix of festive and gothic, but Ever said he wasn’t going to dress up. I put the dress in a sac and carried it with me, just in case. The last thing I wanted was to stick out like a nerdy, over-excited white girl.
I adamantly explained several times that I HAD to get my face painted, so Ever humored me, like a child at a their first carnival. I thought I would get my face painted in some sort of salon downtown with a bunch of fashionable Méxicans prepping for the big party. Instead, it was a few ladies on the street with a basic face-painting kit. I waited in line, noticing I really was like a kid at a carnival. The one in front of me emerged as Spider Man. “Oh, great,” I thought. “This is just face painting and sugar skull was just one of the options”. Also available was a Princess, a Unicorn and the Hulk. I was glad I hadn’t worn my dress or I would’ve stuck out for sure.
The Long Way to the Party
With a decorated face, we walked to the bus station and rode to the outskirts of Oaxaca. I was glad to be leaving el Centro. It was beautiful and festive, but it seemed more like a performance for tourists than an authentic celebration. I wanted to celebrate like Méxicans, not how Méxicans thought tourists would pay to see.
On the outskirts of Oaxaca, we got in the back of a truck with Ever’s friends. We drove on the freeway and again, I had no idea where we were headed. It was remote and I was glad I wouldn’t be just another tourist in the crowd.
After some highway driving, there was some miles on a dirt road and through a corn field. I had been waiting to celebrate Dia de Muertos for six years and I couldn’t help thinking, “are we there yet?”
The Only Gringa in the Room
We pulled up to the friend’s house. His name was Chino, a nickname meaning he had curly hair. With my over-the-top excitement as apparent as my face paint, I walked into the house only to see about 12 straight-faced Mexicans in the middle of a poker game. There were some women who looked as beautiful as they did fierce. They could have been a cartel for all I knew. The room fell silent and they all stopped what they were doing and stared and the gringa in the doorway. It was as uncomfortable and ironic as a scene from a movie. I was so embarrassed. I obviously wasn’t blending in as a seasoned traveler. After the long silence, Ever led me to the couch where I made conversation with a nice guy who had also been excluded from the poker game. The tension settled as Chino’s mom served everyone mole negro over chicken with rice and tortillas. I ate carefully because any stray speck of mole would stain any surface.
Dancing in the Street
After poker, dinner, and after-meal chatting, we left the house as a mob. The twelve of us walked through the town with dirt roads that zig-zagged like a maze. I felt I was merely being tolerated among the cool, poker-playing locals, like a dorky little sister who was only tagging along because mother insisted. But I was in México partying on Dia de Muertos! I paid a lot of money to come here and I wanted to get as much out of the experience as I possibly could. If Ever’s cool friends thought I was dorky, that wasn’t so bad. We heard traditional banda music (think lots of brass instruments and drums) growing louder and louder and our senses pulled us closer to the party.
As we discovered the source of the music, we joined everyone else in dance right there in the middle of the street. I was ecstatic when I saw other people dressed up, and not just in quirky dresses but full-on costumes! I rushed off to a corner, pulled my dress over my head and went right on dancing.
Shortly after I rejoined the crowd, the music and the dancing stopped and the crowd started migrating down the street. Ever reassured me that the celebration wasn’t over, we were just moving on to the next scene. Apparently, there were bandas sprinkled all over the town and the crowd followed them wherever they went. Sometimes two bandas approached each other and the crowd would morph and split and follow whoever had the most alluring music.
I saw some amazing costumes!
Some of these costumes were the most elaborate I had ever seen (and I had been to a Halloween rave once so that’s saying something). A pair of friends even went as far as to design hooves to make realistic demon costumes.
We danced and danced and I tried to absorb as much México as I could. I was so grateful to celebrate in the small pueblo of Etla. I was grateful to have met Ever and grateful he showed me the real Dia de Muertos. And I was grateful I could trust him.
Several hours into the dancing, we all stopped at a little fonda (food tent) to eat.
I had a tostada de camarón (shrimp). Ever and I decided to head back home since we had to leave early the next morning to visit his grandfather. By the time we got a ride back into Oaxaca, and Ever’s father picked us up in el Centro, it was nearly 2am.
Ever said the people in Etla would probably be dancing until sunrise. I was a little sad to miss any part of it, but I had danced, I had done Dia de Muertos, I had crossed a major goal off my bucket list, and I was tired. With my ears still ringing, and the sights of altars and costumes burned on the inside of my eyelids, I tried to sleep.
I vowed to keep this mindset about death for the rest of my days. I’m a Glass-is-Half-Full person so this positive focus suits me. I celebrate Dia de Muerto here in the states. Wouldn’t anyone prefer color instead of black, laughter instead of tears and dancing instead of depression? In my opinion, a vibrant celebration of life seems to honor the departed far more than the somber, dark way we handle it here. You can’t stop death, but you can celebrate life. Why fret about the things you can’t control? It seemed like such a profound suggestion.
MORE ABOUT THE HOLIDAY:
As many traditions with such a long history, Dia de los Muertos has morphed over time through the sieve of various cultural influences. It began as a native Mesoamerican tradition and adapted to fit the strict rules of the Spanish colonizers, picking up the name “All Saints Day”. In fact, All Saints Day is celebrated throughout the Catholic World. In modern times, due to timely and locational proximity, it has meshed, in some areas, with Halloween.
You’ll soon notice many symbols and customs that are key to Dia de Muertos. First is La Catrina, a skeleton with a fancy hat and clothes. Some say that La Catrina was created as a satirical way to mock the Eurocentric Dictators and elites in México whose greedy ways caused most Méxicans to go hungry. Others say she is a representation of an Aztec goddess known as the Lady of the Dead. “[La Catrina] is a playful skeleton. There’s that playful, festive atmosphere also on Day of the Dead that characterizes the Méxican approach to death in general,” says Andrew Chestnut for a Refinery 29 article on the holiday.
Katie Dillon from LaJollaMom.com explains the appeal of Marigolds in the decorated altars. “It is believed that the spirits of the dead visit the living during the celebration. Marigolds guide the spirits to their altars using their vibrant colors and scent. Marigolds, or flowers in general, also represent the fragility of life.”
Back in the Old World, priests had discovered a way to make molds for sugar candies and used them to make sugar bunnies and animals to decorate for Easter. When they traveled to México, they brought this knowledge with them. Since México grows so much sugar and many people there didn’t have extra money to buy decorations, making sugar skulls quickly became recognized as a way to make festive decorations for the ofrendas (altars). Traditionally, the name of a deceased loved one was written across the forehead of the sugar skull. As the tradition established roots throughout the decades, people found more ways to decorate the sugar skulls. They have become more and more beautiful. It’s no wonder the symbol has spread.
Altars are everywhere in the days and weeks surrounding this holiday. If a family makes an altar for their grandfather who used to love to fish, they might add some pretty fishing lures in the mix. It is also common to see bread in the shape of Santa Maria.
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