Family fun on the Day of the Dead

We decided to pull up the parking brake in Oaxaca for the month not only because it’s fun to say that you are in Wa-ha-ka (the phonetic pronunciation of Oaxaca) but also for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. The Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition occurring on November 1 or November 2 - we haven’t been able to figure out which of the two days is the actual Day of the Dead - where the living relatives of a dead person celebrate the dead person’s life by pulling weeds that have grown up around the grave of the dead person since the last time the living people - who are busy all year doing things that living people do like riding motorcycles - visited a year ago, decorating the grave site of the dead person with flowers and art, drinking mezcal, and passing out in the cemetery. The Day of the Dead ritual has its religious origins in Mexican colonial times when the Catholic Church tried to meld indigenous beliefs with its own recognition of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, but has been commercialized to the point that you can buy cotton candy and light-up neon circus toys while urinating in the corner of the cemetery. I’m just saying.

Tiny altar decorations, including a tiny altar.

Tiny altar decorations, including a tiny altar.

When R and I have traveled in the past, it always seems like we are either so late getting to the party that the bar is closed, or so early that the band hasn’t even set up yet. For example, we were born a year too late to witness man walking on the moon, and when we spent time in Pokhara, India, fifteen years ago, we were six months too early for the camel fair which is a big hit in those parts. Even on this trip we’ve had a couple of near misses. We arrived too early to Morelia to witness the migration of the Monarch butterfly, and we passed on spending September 16, Mexican Independence day, in Dolores de Hidalgo, the very spot where the Catholic priest turned Mexican hero Miguel Hidalgo rallied the farmers and less fortunate to revolution, because we thought we had to be somewhere else. Of course, we did time the Olive Ridley turtle arribata just right, so we were on a one game winning streak.

The Day of the Dead celebration in Oaxaca is supposed to be one of the most spectacular in Mexico, so when we arrived in the city in the middle of October with nothing else to do we decided that we would just stick around until November 1 or 2 to witness it. Well, it’s turned out that we’ve had a lot of fun in Wahaka which I’ve written about here, here, here, and here, and R won’t let me post video of the other 48 seconds of fun that she and I had together while the kids were asleep, but the Day of the Dead was something different.

The Day of the Dead family fun started on Thursday at Coconut and J’s new school, Colegio Teizcali, which, by the way, has 1980’s Lego Space Guy as its mascot. All the teachers and most of the other kids showed up in costume - some version of a dead person like a skeleton, vampire, Catrina (Mexican skeleton woman), or wolfman - and then the entire school paraded around the village of San Felipe del Agua behind a brass band.

The staff and faculty of Colegio Teizcali, the local school where the kids spent a month. 

The staff and faculty of Colegio Teizcali, the local school where the kids spent a month. 

Colegio Teizcali in San Felipe del Agua, just outside Oaxaca City parades around the village for Dia de los Muertos. Notice 1980s Lego Space Guy, the school's mascot.

Colegio Teizcali in San Felipe del Agua, just outside Oaxaca City parades around the village for Dia de los Muertos. Notice 1980s Lego Space Guy, the school's mascot.

Later on in the school day there was a play (all acts in Spanish, so all I understood was that J has a bunch of kids with nice, gray beards in his class) and food, including some type of sweetened pumpkin which is now my new favorite way to eat pumpkin rather than just eating the raw scrapings from the Halloween Jack o’Lantern that we carve each October. Incidentally, the Halloween tradition of knocking on strangers’ doors and asking for free candy does not seem to be celebrated here in Mexico, though, there were plenty of stores selling some pretty frightening looking masks for just a couple of bucks, so if you are in the market for a scary mask to liven up your marriage, let me know.

On Friday, Coconut and J had off from school for a teacher work day and we took a bus downtown to buy things for a Day of the Dead altar that we made for their grandmother and my mother, Joanne Carlino. One of the Day of the Dead traditions is to make an altar - ours was a clementine crate stacked on top of the landlord’s TV stand - and pile it with things that honor your loved one and that would encourage that person to come back for an evening. Flowers, particularly marigolds, are ubiquitous, and colored paper cut with different designs like a skeleton head or even two skeleton heads, called “papel picado,” also lend flair.

Shopping for Day of Dead alter supplies in the market.

Shopping for Day of Dead alter supplies in the market.

Skulls and candy made of sugar, meant to entice the dead back for a visit on Day of the Dead.

Skulls and candy made of sugar, meant to entice the dead back for a visit on Day of the Dead.

A tiny fishmonger figure for a Day of the Dead altar.

A tiny fishmonger figure for a Day of the Dead altar.

We had these traditional items on our altar, and added things specific to my Mom, like pictures of Coconut, J, and their cousin, and of my Mom on her dock at Wolf Lake, pieces of chocolate, a bottle of wine, some candles, a coffee mug, an alibrije of a cat (an alibrije is a wooden, painted animal often designed in fantastical forms), Keith Urban playing in the background for as long as we could stand it, and a bunch of flowers that were home to a small salamander that came running out of the bouquet one morning while Coconut was refreshing the water. She trapped it under a cup just before it ran into the scrambled eggs and cut off the tail at the same time, which wiggled for awhile like it was going to grow a new body just like the lizard was going to grow a new tail. After some debate, we set both free in the bushes behind our house.

An intricately decorated alijibre, a fantstical Oaxacan folk-art animal. 

An intricately decorated alijibre, a fantstical Oaxacan folk-art animal. 

Our family Day of the Dead altar, constructed for Joanne Carlino, Paul's mom.  The altar is supposed to be 3 levels with images and items dear to the deceased.  (We ignorantly included photos of living people, which we later learned we weren't supposed to do.)  Copal, an incense from the resin of the copal tree, is burned on the altar and special sweet foods are placed on the altar, along with marigold flowers.

Our family Day of the Dead altar, constructed for Joanne Carlino, Paul's mom.  The altar is supposed to be 3 levels with images and items dear to the deceased.  (We ignorantly included photos of living people, which we later learned we weren't supposed to do.)  Copal, an incense from the resin of the copal tree, is burned on the altar and special sweet foods are placed on the altar, along with marigold flowers.

On Saturday we dragged Coconut and J to the cemetery at Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán (pronounced something like Santa Cruz Hoho) which is on the gringo tourist Day of the Dead to-do list. This cemetery, which our map app got us to the general vicinity of and then we had to ask locals for directions before we eventually just followed the wheelbarrows full of marigolds, has both an old and a new section, and during the time we were there, at dusk and later, was quite the fire hazard considering that most of the burning candles were housed under plastic soda bottles. The layout of the cemetery itself very much reminded me of traffic, if traffic was mounds of dirt covering dead people, and one had to walk between very narrow aisles to move forward and every few rows a grave site would be stuck between the aisle like a car trying to switch lanes. At one point this caused R, who was first in line, to quip, “This way is a dead end”, which made a lot of people around us who understood English laugh, and later Coconut made R’s and my heart swell with pride by using a Spanish word when she noticed that there were a lot of old “gringos” around.

The cemetery at Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, a village outside of Oaxaca City, is a popular destination for tourists to visit for Day of the Dead.

The cemetery at Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, a village outside of Oaxaca City, is a popular destination for tourists to visit for Day of the Dead.

Mexican marigolds are the primary flower used to decorate graves.

Mexican marigolds are the primary flower used to decorate graves.

Even the undead like to play Plants vs. Zombies.
Even the undead like to play Plants vs. Zombies.
Families spend hours cleaning and decorating graves, to honor and remember the dead.  Here a woman decorates with colored sand.

Families spend hours cleaning and decorating graves, to honor and remember the dead.  Here a woman decorates with colored sand.

Beautiful artwork created with flowers.
Beautiful artwork created with flowers.

On Sunday, the thing to do is to go to the Panteon General (General Cemetery) in Oaxaca during the late afternoon, so we did. We met our former AirBnB hosts Brett and Renae there and took a quick look around the cemetery, which was full of living and dead people and flowers, and then made our way to the party outside where we rode souped up versions of bumper cars like existed in the States before whiplash was diagnosed, and Coconut and J tried out the mechanical bull. I’m not sure what these carnival games have to do with remembering the dearly departed, but I’m sure it was the highlight of Coconut and J’s Day of the Dead experience.

Coconut about to get serious with a mechanical bull.
Coconut about to get serious with a mechanical bull.
J strikes a vaquero pose.
J strikes a vaquero pose.
Soooooo booooorrrrring!

Soooooo booooorrrrring!

On Monday it was back to school for the kids, and after a reluctant drop-off, R and I made a pass through the San Felipe cemetery, which is just a few blocks from our place. San Felipe is a small village and has been described to us as one of the more wealthy places in Mexico. While we do see a lot of BMW’s and fancy houses, and the standard adult outfit seems to be freshly washed fluorescent spandex, this is still a little hard to believe as a pack of wild dogs lives in a bunch of weeds up the road from us one way and the other way there are six or seven chickens playing in the street and some donkeys. A little beyond that is a gated community paradise of green lawns, and I imagine, poop-free streets. Nevertheless, rich, poor, and middle class all must come together at the cemetery as San Felipe is supposed to be the best party in town.

At 8 a.m. on Monday, however, the cemetery was pretty mellow as folks were just getting started on decorating the graves of their loved ones and chilling cervezas in their coolers.

Another elaborately decorated grave .

Another elaborately decorated grave .

R and I took a bunch of pictures and walked around and it would have been interesting for us to see the contrast from morning to night but we never got to it because after screwing around all day we picked the kids up from school in the afternoon (they get out of school at 2:30) and went with them to eat sushi at a nearby restaurant and then went to a park to play. We came home and ate chicken soup that R made and then sugar skulls off Grandma’s altar. Then we played with clay. By the time we remembered we were going to walk to the cemetery, it was after eight o’clock and we were dead tired.

R and I have walked around a little bit since the festivities ended, and it feels like the wind-up of any holiday in the States. Some people have taken down their altars and decorations, others not. The stores are selling discounted papel picado and candles just like CVS sells Christmas lights for peanuts after the new year. There are still a lot of old gringos around. We walked around the Panteon General on Wednesday morning with the sun shining brilliantly, the temperature perfect, and hardly a soul around. The flowers still were bright and smelled wonderful even with discarded cups and wrappers strewn around the grounds. As we were walking out, the grounds crew, which may have been taking a break or maybe not, called us over to have a beer. In Mexico, the party doesn’t really end until you die. Why should it?

This little girl's skirt is made of dried corn husks.

This little girl's skirt is made of dried corn husks.