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Oaxaca CelebratesBy Charles & Mary Love (2005)
back to Press Prior to 2008 >>
Located in southwestern Mexico, Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) has become one of the most popular destinations in the Americas. The annual Day of the Dead celebration provides a festive backdrop for exploring this colonial city and its surroundings.
photo from Austin-Lehman's Oaxaca Vacation
Colonial-era architecture, archaeological sites, outstanding restaurants, cooking and language schools, and internationally acclaimed artisans are putting the destination on the map. Additionally, the indigenous culture—a complex blend of Catholicism and nature worship— is well preserved and adds to the appeal.
Other Mexican places have some, if not all, of these attributes. But Oaxaca, still off the radar screens of mainstream travelers, has them all in abundance and is relatively “undiscovered”—at least for now.
My husband and I are here in early November with an American group organized by Austin-Lehman Adventures, a leading U.S. travel company. We’ve come to explore both the city of Oaxaca and its environs—a scenic region of rugged mountains and sylvan valleys.
Our trip coincides with the annual Day of the Dead celebration, a three-day event that coincides with the Catholic feasts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
At this time of year, families welcome the spirits of the dead back to earth. They visit cemeteries, build elaborate home altars covered with memorabilia and photos of the deceased, and make visits to the homes of friends and relatives. The celebration takes many forms. For some it involves rowdy partying and, for others, reflection and meditation.
The cultural underpinnings of the Day of the Dead go back to pre-Hispanic times and reflect the indigenous people’s belief that death is simply an extension of life. The departed, they think, are never far away. And, at this time of year, their spirits mingle with the living.
Exploring Oaxaca’s streets is like walking through a swatch book of colors. Elegant colonial-era buildings come in a range of hues: rich siennas and vivid saffrons, pale blues and bright pinks. Many have tall windows, framed by heavy moldings and accented with graceful wrought-iron balconies. Today, the balconies are hung with Day of the Dead papeles picados—lacy paper cut-outs—and dancing skeletons.
Before visiting the city’s galleries, boutiques, and museums we check out the non-stop activity in the streets. A coquettish young girl, accompanying herself with a small accordion, belts out Mexican folk songs on a street corner. Along a street near the Church of Santo Domingo, local artists display alebrijes, fanciful, colorfully painted wooden animals (jaguars, giraffes, porcupines, lions and horses, to name a few) that represent nahuals or guardian spirits.
A short walk brings us to the Zócalo, Oaxaca’s town square where colonial-era buildings, lined with sidewalk cafes, face a small park. On the north side of the square is the cathedral, Oaxaca’s oldest colonial church. Its south façade is a long, unadorned wall of sage-green paras stone. Surrounding its massive wooden door are three tiers of Corinthian columns. They frame statues of saints so realistically carved they look as if they might step down and walk into the crowd.
As we enter the cathedral, the soft voices of an a cappella choir mix with the brassy sounds of a band in the park. The sacred and secular intermingle, suggesting the dual aspects of Day of the Dead festivities.
Outside in the square, the daily life of the Zócalo goes on as it has for generations. Vendors hawk silver jewelry, semi-precious stones, and, in honor of the season, little wooden skeletons that dangle on a string. Families stroll through the park with children in tow and young couples kiss beneath shade trees. Balloon vendors, all but hidden behind inflated, oversized cartoon characters, wait patiently for a sale.
Oaxaca’s galleries and boutiques exhibit the work of contemporary painters, sculptors, ceramic artisans, and jewelry makers. A few feature antique crafts. We wander into La Mano Magico and admire the rugs of famous Oaxacan weaver Arnulfo Mendoza. Wandering across the street to another gallery results in a purchase of handcrafted silver earrings.
Later, we discover the workshop of sculptor Jacobo Angeles and his family. Jacobo carves animals and other figures from the wood of the copal tree. Intricately painted jaguars, eagles, and other animals stare at us from his shelves, all of them more arresting than the tourist-variety sculptures we have seen earlier. They are animated, caught in motion. Their eyes are life-like and penetrating, as if possessed by an inner spirit.
An assistant in the workshop tells us more about these animal nahuals, or guardian spirits. In former times, when a woman gave birth, a shaman would draw a circle of lime around her. Only he could see animal footprints in the lime and identify the creature that would be the baby’s guardian spirit. Village shamans still perform these rituals. However, many people now adopt their own nahuals based on the qualities they think they have or would like to cultivate.
We notice a particularly beautiful sculpture of a coyote, the nahual that symbolizes “wisdom” and “clarity of vision”. It’s hard to believe that a single block of wood could be fashioned into a creature of such grace and vigor. But there he is, one ear folded down, the other pointing upwards, his body twisted tautly on an invisible axis as his soulful eyes stare ahead. Unpainted, he still lacks traditional Zapotecan symbols — the ancient alphabet of Oaxaca’s indigenous tribes. We can’t leave without him, so Jacobo graciously promises to complete the sculpture and deliver it to our hotel in three days.
On another day we wander into Oaxaca’s most important museum, the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo, located within the complex of the 16th-century Santo Domingo Church. Among the masterpieces displayed here are pre-Columbian artifacts, colonial-era paintings and sculptures, and ancient manuscripts, including a rare 1484 commentary on the works of Aristotle.
Evenings in Oaxaca are delightful. Restaurants— many featuring live entertainment— offer Mexican, Continental and Asian cuisine.
We enjoy a buffet dinner of traditional Oaxacan specialties— all served in a grand, barrel-vaulted chapel— accompanied by the best margaritas in town and a re-enactment of Oaxaca’s summertime dance festival, the Guelaguetza.
Smiling senoritas in flowing embroidered skirts and their gallant partners strut and whirl in a kaleidoscope of color. The dances range from celebrations of courtship and bountiful harvests to re-enactments of the struggle against Spanish conquistadors.
Another evening we visit Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca’s busiest cemetery. “Busy” is not an adjective I’d normally use to describe a cemetery, but, during Day of the Dead festivities, it fits the bill.
A sea of flickering candles lights up gravestones and monuments— some simple, others as grandiose as miniature cathedrals. People prop against the gravestones or recline beside flower-strewn graves, their faces rimmed by the orange glow of votive candles.
It’s impossible to assign one mood or emotion to the celebrants. Each person is responding in his or her own way to the event. Some whisper, some weep; others laugh and clown around. One thing, however, is clear: there is no one rule of comportment for the event.
The environs of Oaxaca offer as much adventure as the city itself. Archaeological sites, artisan villages, and hiking trails are all within an hour or two.
The pre-Hispanic site of Monte Alban, just a short drive from Oaxaca, is one of the archaeological highlights of the region. The original settlement arose as a ceremonial center around 500 B.C. Eventually, it developed into a city-state—the first urban complex in Mesoamerica—that lasted until 750 A.D. Situated on the crest of a mountain overlooking the Oaxacan Valley, Monte Alban reflects its early inhabitants’ desire to live close to their celestial gods.
At its peak, Monte Alban was populated by approximately 40,000 people spread out over three square miles. We explore well-preserved palaces, temples, shrines, ball courts, and ceremonial plazas, some with intricately carved facades. The most provocative stone reliefs are “The Dancers”— semi-nude male figures in the grotesque postures of a tribal dance.
The Vale of Apoala—known as Oaxaca’s Shangri-La—is tucked away in the mountains northwest of the city. We hike for most of a day in this farmland region, home to Mixtecan Indians. Limestone canyons and mesas overlook tumbling rivers and red clay fields scattered with cypress, juniper, oak, and pine trees.
Hiking along the banks of the Apoala River, we look up at cliff walls perforated with caves—home to thousands of sparrows and, according to legend, devils. Today, after last week’s rain, the river runs chestnut red, the color of one of Oaxaca’s famous mole sauces. It runs around enormous boulders that are as white as Oaxaca’s equally famous string cheese.
On our way to the Cola de Serpent (tail of the serpent) Falls, over 150 ft. high, we pass small farms with log cabin-style dwellings. Men plow fields behind oxen or herd sheep and cattle. Their wives chat on wooden porches while hand-weaving sombreros from palm fronds.
A hospitable family offers us pulque, a slightly sour alcoholic extract of the maguey plant that’s definitely an acquired taste. Our hosts encourage us to drink, insisting it is rich in protein and an aphrodisiac. Whatever its attributes, the drink refreshes us. Later, after a challenging hike down a forest ravine, the journey ends with a picnic and swim at the base of the waterfall.
Another trip later in the week takes us on an 18-mile bike ride to the festive Sunday market in Tlacolula. Pedaling down narrow country lanes and dirt paths, we pass fields of daisies, vegetables, potatoes, and agave— all against a backdrop of mist-shrouded mountains. Goat herders tend their flocks along the road. Farmers transport crops in wooden carts, some overflowing with yellow marigolds destined for Day of the Dead altars.
After a rest stop at the region’s oldest church in Tlacochahuaya, we browse for rugs in nearby Teotitlan, the area’s most famous weaving village. Later, in Tlacolula, we immerse ourselves in the market, already crowded with villagers in brightly colored traditional dress. Some purchase food, clothing, and other household necessities. Others shop for flowers to decorate home altars or socialize on tree-shaded benches in the village’s central plaza.
Tlacolula is known for mescal—a popular alcoholic drink distilled from fermented juices of the agave plant. We turn down the chance to indulge and find respite from the market in the village’s 17th -century church. This architectural gem features life-like sculptures of angels and saints, paintings, and gold scrollwork on nearly every facade.
Faith here is a blend of Catholicism and animism. For nearly an hour, we watch women— considered spiritually stronger than men—perform a ritual before a flower-strewn altar inside the church to “cleanse” their families of evil spirits.
Near the end of our trip, we spend a night at Casa Sagrada, just 15 miles from Oaxaca. Located on a hilltop above Teotitlan, this rustic, word-of-mouth hideaway is home to weaver Arnulfo Mendoza and his wife Mary Jane— also owners of La Mano Magico gallery in Oaxaca. Their comfortable guest rooms feature panoramic views of the Oaxacan valley and adjacent mountain ranges.
Surrounded by horses, goats, chickens, and other farm animals, we feel as if we are staying with country relatives. Known for its outstanding regional cuisine and cooking school (the Culinary Institute of America sends students here), the Casa’s delicious tamales, enchiladas, and moles, prepared by chef Reyna Mendoza and her staff, are the best we’ve had yet.
In the village, my husband tries a temascal, a traditional, pre-Hispanic sweat bath. He returned and described crawling into a dark, five by seven foot adobe hut that was hot, humid, and attended by a large, partially clad Indian woman. She poured a mixture of water and herbs over hot stones to generate steam and pungent vapors. Then, as he sweated profusely, she swatted him and two other participants with small branches to stimulate their skin. I never dreamed he would enjoy flagellation but here he was energized, relaxed, and red as a chile pepper.
We return to Oaxaca for our last evening. Having arranged to meet sculptor Jacobo at our hotel to take delivery of his sculpture, we wait nearly an hour beyond our pre-arranged rendezvous time. Just as we conclude he’ll never show up, he marches into the lobby with his family (wife, two children) and a brown paper bundle.
He insists on unwrapping the package for us. When the last layer of paper is pulled away, we are stunned. Here was the coyote sculpture we had seen in unfinished condition only days before. But now it is entirely painted with Zapotecan hieroglyphics, symbols of nature and religion that pre-date the arrival of Spanish conquistadores. And the animal’s soulful eyes are now accented with triple highlights.
Jacobo exclaims, “This is my masterpiece!” as his family looked on with pride. We agree, then listen for over an hour as he explains every symbol.
Later in the evening, we wander back to the Zócalo for dinner. Backlit by a full moon, the silhouette of the cathedral looms in front of us. Decorations are now gone from some balconies overlooking the cobbled streets. All is quiet except for the melody of a guitarist drifting into the night.
The Day of the Dead, like Jacobo’s artistry, is a spiritual link with the past, a manifestation of respect and love connecting generations. Thornton Wilder’s words from The Bridge of San Luis Rey come to mind: “There’s a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Oaxaca’s celebration drives home this message.