Día de los Muertos, celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd in Mexico, is typically full of parades and parties. But while this year’s celebrations may be quieter and more familial, traditions live on.
Although Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated all across Mexico, the city of Oaxaca is the epicenter of festivity. Every year, from October 31st to November 2nd, Mexicans honor and celebrate the lives of their family members who have departed. It is believed that during these three days, the deceased will return to visit their families and friends as the veil between this world and the afterlife is briefly lifted.
In the weeks leading up to the holiday, the city of Oaxaca buzzes with excitement.
Marigold garlands flood the streets illuminating the city in a vibrant orange, and extravagant decorations wrap the doorways of businesses and homes. At any given hour, parades wind through the city with men and women dressed in costumes, their faces painted as calaveras (or skulls) for both a ghoulish and magical feel. Marching bands accompanying these parades blare their trumpets and guitars, inciting dancing and singing while oversized papier-mâché skeletons and puppets tower above the parades—guiding the cacophony of music and jubilee through the streets.
At night, mezcal pours freely. Sparkling fireworks summon bystanders to join the party. Families gather at their local cemeteries, decorating the graves of their loved ones, sharing a meal, singing, dancing, and reveling in their ancestors’ memories.
“There’s a sensation around this time of year in Oaxaca, you can feel that Día de los Muertos is coming, there’s something in the air,” explains Carlos Ordaz Cruz, a native Oaxacan who has been living in the city for the past 10 years. “But right now, it doesn’t feel the same way. It’s not sad, it’s just different.”
This year, the streets feel quieter.
The vibrancy of the city has been shadowed by the grim reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken over 86,000 lives across the country. Cases across Mexico continue to rise while the country already has one of the highest mortality rates in the world. In Oaxaca, all Día de los Muertos parades and public gatherings have been prohibited and the cemeteries remain closed.
However, Oaxacans will not let their ritual of honoring the dead be forgotten: “Día de los Muertos is a tradition that will remain alive as long as there are Mexicans in this world. It’s part of who we are,” Ordaz Cruz continues.“Like many traditions in the past, Dia de los Muertos will just have to adapt and change to meet our new normal.”
Although Oaxacans may not be taking to the streets to rejoice, the holiday’s traditions are alive within their homes. Families begin their preparations by creating ofrendas or altars to help welcome and guide the spirits of the deceased. These altars are decorated with bright marigold flowers, family photos, and offerings of their ancestors’ favorite food and drinks.
“I remember, as a kid, I was so excited to go to my grandma’s house and see the altar,” says Ordaz Cruz, sharing one of his fondest Día de los Muertos memories from childhood. “She used to keep tall candles lit all night and my job was to cut the wick ever so often to keep the flame burning. This was really important because it would help guide my grandpa to her house.”
The year his grandfather died, the Dia de los Muertos celebration was particularly important. The festivities started early in the morning with his grandmother making tamales in her woodfire oven. He remembers the altar towering from floor to ceiling filled with chocolate bars, sugar candies, fruits, and pan de muerto, a special bread prepared only during this time.
His entire extended family was together; aunts, uncles, and cousins all under one roof laughing, sharing stories of his grandfather, enjoying his favorite foods and drinks. Ordaz Cruz remembers, “It wasn’t about mourning, it was about celebrating the life of my grandfather.”
In the last few years, international tourism to the city of Oaxaca has skyrocketed during Día de los Muertos. Newer traditions such as street parades and parties have shifted the atmosphere of the holiday away from something quiet and familial. Some Oaxacan residents see this year’s COVID-19 restrictions as a silver lining, providing an opportunity for families to return to their personal traditions without the city streets filled with tourists and fanfare.
“The huge parades and events are designed more for tourists,” explains Oaxacan resident Kendall Chase. “This year, there is an opportunity for families to come back to the tradition of making the holiday a very personal space to honor and celebrate their loved ones and not so much about younger people going out and having these crazy parties.”
Just twenty miles east of the bustling Oaxaca City lies the small village of Teotitlán del Valle, where the holiday has always been calmer. Protective of the preservation of their identity, the community maintains its indigenous Zapotec culture, language, and traditions. Though the decrease in tourism this year due to COVID-19 won’t impact their traditions, many families who rely on tourism have been economically impacted. Teotitlán del Valle is known for its hand-dyed textiles and rugs and many artisans rely on tourism to sell these artisan goods.
Teresa López Montaño, an artisan living in the community, explains the financial strain she’s feeling in preparation for the holiday this year. “Whether or not there is tourism, we still have to spend money for the Day of the Dead. The situation does affect us economically. Whether tourists come or not, we will continue with our traditions, we have to, it’s part of who we are.”
On November 1st, just before 3:00 pm, church bells will ring throughout Teotitlán del Valle, signaling the arrival of the departed. Shortly after, the whistle of fireworks and rockets will swirl through the air as families gather inside their homes, lighting candles and incense for a moment of reflection.
During this moment of remembrance, Lopez Montano’s family pours mezcal to share with their ancestors, and gather around the altar which is overflowing with flowers, pan de muertos, chocolates, and nuts. Glasses of mezcal and soda are placed nearby steaming plates of freshly cooked tamales, enchiladas, and mole for her ancestors.
López-Montaño explains that the atmosphere feels both joyous and somber. “In that moment, you feel like the souls are really visiting. Even though you’re not receiving people physically, you still carry them in your heart and in your mind.”