Dia de los Muertos the Way They Do It Back Home
This year’s ¡Vivan los Muertos! celebration at the Autry, on Saturday, will carry what you could call a Oaxacan seal of approval. Rogelio Santibañez Arellanes, cultural promotion director for the state government of Oaxaca, Mexico, was on hand all this week as a consultant to help guide the celebration.
“I come to make the offerings and to help create the altars, to give them a very Oaxacan identity,” said Santibañez, a Zapotec for whom promoting his culture is not just a job, it’s an obsession. He is a folkloric dancer who has been performing since he was a boy and now heads a group of his own, and he celebrates the Day of the Dead every year. “This year the altars will be dedicated to people who figured in Oaxacan culture.”
On Wednesday, Santibañez talked about how the Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1 and 2, in his home state, one of the places in Mexico where the tradition is deepest and most colorful.
“We have to be prepared always to receive again the people who have left this Earth,” he said. “Because they tell us that everything is a natural cycle of life, and that we should regard life with respect and with responsibility. Respect, because we do not know everything that lies beyond this sensation of temporal life. And responsibility, because we also will have to return one day.”
That return signifies that they have to actively teach the tradition to their children, Santibañez said, so that, when they return as spirits, their children can be there to receive them. He said turning this observation of respect for ancestors into a festive occasion also, paradoxically, allows them to integrate it into their everyday lives. Every person in each family, for example, has a specific task in the preparations.
Weeks ahead of time, the women go to the markets and gradually gather all the ingredients for the feast, the offerings and the decorations. The men begin building the wooden foundation and the arch for the altar, which is placed in the best spot in the house and eventually will hold offerings for the dead of water, cooked dishes, fruit, flowers and candles whose light will guide the spirits. They also make repairs to the house, clean it and prepare it “as if we were to receive the most special visitors.”
The day before, the family goes to the market together to get last-minute additions that have to be as fresh as possible, such as fruits and flowers. This is also when the children get involved in the preparations, allowing for conversations where the parents and grandparents talk about the loved ones who are absent or make plans for the future.
“We talk about the ephemeral nature of life and about the responsibilities we have as human beings to live a respectful life so we can prolong our stay here,” Santibañez said. “All of this then slowly flowers and develops. All we do is light the spark and all of it is there.”
On the day before the celebration, October 31, families go to the cemeteries and clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones, taking with them the food and drink they will offer, to eat and to share. They remain at the graves all night, in vigil, lighting candles and visiting with friends and neighbors. At dawn they return home to rest and prepare for the coming of the spirits.
At noon, everything should be ready, including the food and other offerings on the altar. The family gathers before it and, waving a censer burning a bit of copal resin, each member blesses it and speaks to the spirits of the dead loved ones.
“It becomes a holy place,” Santibañez said. “That is the most mystical, the deepest part, perhaps. It’s a connection between what is familiar and what is unknown.”
Later, they will listen to traditional songs like Dios Nunca Muere, a song normally played at funerals, now played to welcome the spirits.
The following day, November 2, they bless the altar again, and at noon they go in procession again to the cemetery, this time to take their leave. Afterward, they go from house to house among the neighbors, taking baskets of food from the altar that they now give away, receiving others’ food in turn. They may also participate in parades called comparsas that feature outsize satirical images of local celebrities, politicians and devils and involve a kind of street theatre.
Santibañez said the Day of the Dead is an occasion also for family reunions, for those who have emigrated to return home for a while. He said migration has affected the traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead.
“It’s a constant transformation, because as live beings, we are changing,” he said. “Everything is changing in this life … Everything that is static is what is dead. So we as a culture have to transform ourselves, but we need to know the past so we can identify what is the best that we can appropriate from all these cultures that are invading us. Because there are positive and negative things.”
This year, the artist altars will honor five Oaxacans who have advanced the state’s culture: María Sabina Magdalena García, Casilda Flores Morales, Paulina Solís Ocampo, Francisco Cipriano Villa Hernandez, and Mary Toledo Beltrán.
García was a Mazatec healer who Santibañez says became known worldwide. Flores Morales was a market vendor who became known for her fruit juice concoctions and who organized a group of traditional dancers known as the chinas oaxaqueñas. Solis Ocampo was an educator credited with founding the first distance-learning high school in Oaxaca who also choreographed a famous traditional dance. Villa Hernandez was a composer who created a series of dances known as the Mixtec jarabe. And Toledo Beltrán created a regional festival to celebrate her native land in the region of Oaxaca known as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
“We know these things because they get transmitted not only orally but as heritage,” Santibañez said of the Day of the Dead celebrations. “This is like a historical memory that we keep ourselves, and that is expressed in some way at any time. You don’t have to prepare. It just comes out of you.”