This past weekend a large group of us BBs ventured off to Oaxaca, Mexico, as we were told that Oaxaca was where some of the most traditional Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations and traditions are still honored. In Oaxaca, the weekend of Día de los Muertos is split into three events. October 31 is the day honoring the angelitos – little angels. This day specifically honors the children whose lives were taken too early. November 1st is the day honoring the adults. Finally, November 2nd is the day that celebrates All Souls Day. The whole weekend is a celebration of life, and it was incredible to witness first-hand!
We took a bus on Thursday night and arrived in Oaxaca early Friday morning to explore the city. Oaxaca is known for having a strong prevalence of indigenous cultures, so we were really excited to see how those cultural traditions blended during Día de los Muertos. One of the BBs, Lauren, had made Oaxaca her home a few years back, so we loved having her as a tour guide! During the day, we were able to tour Oaxaca and view all of the beautiful ofrendas (offerings) that are made to honor the dead. Families, businesses, all sorts of entities create ofrendas to respect loved ones no longer with us. Here are a few photos of some of my favorite ofrendas.
On Friday night, our group went to a village outside of Oaxaca called Xoxocatlan to experience the celebration of life in the cemeteries (panteones). Traditionally, families go to the cemetery to create unique ofrendas over the tombstones of their lost loved ones. For the remainder of the night (and into the morning) families and friends remain in the cemetery celebrating life. The two cemeteries we toured were filled with so much life, vibrance, color, and respect as all of the families flocked to the cemeteries to decorate their loved ones’ tombstones. We were able to walk around the busy cemetery and admire all of the gorgeous ofrendas. As I walked through the files of the cemetery, the mood differed greatly from family to family. As I walked past some ofrendas, I felt like I was intruding on a quiet, intimate moment among the families: A family mourning the loss of a child taken too early, a man sleeping at the foot of his wife’s tombstone, a widow toasting to her husband, a woman in her 40s sitting with her brother who had passed when he was 7. In these tender moments, I felt as though I were intruding on a moment that couldn’t be (or didn’t want to be) shared with outsiders. On the other hand, other families were having quite the fiesta: Bands with trumpets, guitars, etc. performing exuberant songs, families drinking their loved ones’ favorite liquors and toasting to a life well-lived, friends dancing to the band, enjoying favorite foods, etc. Although there were some somber moments, the majority of the families were celebrating – celebrating – in cemeteries. Such a beautiful sight to see.
On Saturday night, we went to another village outside of Oaxaca called Etla to participate in a Comparsa. Saturday was ALL fiesta in these villages. These comparsas are similar to parades. 3 other local villages have bands come while village members dress in symbolic costumes and the whole community parades the streets from 11pm until noon the next day (talk about commitment). Around 11am the next day, the 3 villages all meet in one of the village squares and the bands have a “battle of the bands”. The whole night/day is a celebration of costumes, music, food, plays, etc. So many people and so much life!
Clearly the US and Mexico’s tradition of Halloween and Día de los Muertos are quite different. How many times have you seen this concept of community and celebration of life in the US? Communities relishing in life and death together by creating this beautiful understanding of passion – the mixture of joy and suffering of loving and losing. In the US, mourning is understood to be felt or expressed solidarily. In Mexico, the thought goes more like this: “I have lived, I have loved, I have experienced loss of a loved one. Here I am exposing myself through vulnerability, grief, suffering and joy; but I do not feel exposed because everyone has lived, everyone has loved, everyone has experienced loss; so we’ll celebrate together, we’ll grief together, we’ll share in this moment together”. Death is a part of life, and life is lived by all. The concept of death clearly differs, and I think the main difference resides not in the day, not the celebrations, but the fact that this tradition is celebrated and shared within Mexico’s communities and cultures. In the US, we feel that we can’t publicly mourn, we feel uncomfortable grieving in front of others, that we’re supposed to grief and then get on with our lives, that we can’t share these tender, vulnerable moments with others…but why can’t we?
As I walked among this beautiful exhibition of celebration, exuberance, grief, and suffering, so many questions filled my head. I took a class in my undergrad called Justice and Compassion. The point of the class was to study compassion based on radical displacement; a group of 12 willingly throwing ourselves into situations we had never been in before; situations of tenderness, hardship, joy, grief, passion. Walking around the vibrant cemeteries reminded me of one of my Justice and Compassion outings. How close can we get to someone else’s grief? How close can we get to feeling their pain without experiencing it firsthand in that moment? On the flip side, how close can we get to experiencing someone else’s joy and celebration of a life we had never met? How close could we get to feeling like we were apart of those moments and cultural traditions having never experienced them before? We can’t we in the US come together for a day once a year to celebrate, commemorate, and honor life together in such a way that Mexico does?
Cervantino helped my change my attitude and perspective about Mexico; Oaxaca left me feeling extremely grateful and profoundly appreciative for the opportunity to witness these beautiful traditions of community, honor, celebration of a life lived instead of a life lost.