Emmanuelle Jary - 2011-10-14
The Day of the Dead is one of Mexico’s most important holidays. In a country where food is an integral part of culture, the dearly departed are honoured most deliciously, especially in Oaxaca, where El Día de los Muertos is also the Day of Great Feasts.
On 30 October, the state of Oaxaca in the south of Mexico’s Pacific coast region prepares for the approaching holidays, as does the entire country. Arguably one of the year’s most important events, the Day of the Dead is actually held over three days - 31 October to 2 November - in order to celebrate, respectively, los angelitos (the angels), todos los santos (All Saints) and los muertos (the deceased).
In Oaxaca, capital of the Mexican state of the same name (the country’s fifth largest state), the Benito Juarez covered market presents a fine choice of sugar skulls displayed next to small and colourful sweets in the shape of tombs. There are also bones, skeletons and headless bodies - costumes to be worn by children - everywhere one looks. Families select loaves of bread baked around saints whose heads are peeking out.
What actually does this holiday celebrate? It celebrates the dead who come back, briefly, to visit their relatives. Naturally, cemeteries are where it’s all happening, because while the dead return for a short stay with the living, the living occupy the graveyards. From dusk onwards they glitter and glow with candlelight; flowers, fruit, incense and offerings of all kinds adorn the tombs. In one alley of Oaxaca’s largest cemetery, the Mayoral family is heating some mole negro sauce over a small brasero. Family members are seated on an abandoned tomb opposite that of their ancestors. Perhaps to compensate for the intrusion, the family patriarch assures us that he looks after the abandoned tomb with the same care as his own family’s burial place.
Violins, bass, guitars, xylophones... from background melodies to tunes with a beat, music is omnipresent as family members eat, drink and even dance with children playing nearby. During these few days, death is familiar and good-natured.
Beyond the cemetery gates, the festival has taken over the city. Skeletons, imaginary beasts and other denizens from the netherworld decorate immense carpets of sand and students from the city’s art schools parade enormous papier-mâché skulls in the streets. Holiday makers crowd the city, drinking fruit juice, nibbling on cheese-smothered corn on the cob and devouring caramel-coated tomatillos and all manner of very colourful cakes bought from small, itinerant stalls as they stroll along. It seems that food does not simply play a role in these festivities: it’s the star. ‘During el dia de los muertos, I always gain several kilos that I need to lose afterwards,’ a native of Oaxaca tells us. At home, magnificent shrines laden with pomegranates, mandarin oranges, bananas, lemons, goiaba de anta and little apples await the visit of the souls of the deceased. Even those who have starved to death are invited to join in the feast.