Lifting the Veil Between the Dead and the Living: Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca, by N.K. van Riemsdijk

Día de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico and wherever Mexicans living abroad can be found. Normally falling on November 1 and 2, in some regions such as Oaxaca it can extend for much longer, being traditionally celebrated from October 31 to November 6.

You need that much time if you are going to do it properly in Oaxaca. There are campesúchil flowers to buy, musical bands to hire, graves to clean, ofrendas to set up, pan de muerto to bake and many plates of food to make.

For these Days of the Dead are the moments when the curtain between the living and the dead is lifted. When the dead can visit us, whisper in our thoughts, reach out across the bridge to touch us. When they come to eat the food and drink the mezcal their loving relatives leave for them on the ofrendas.

The days and nights are when the living honor the deceased and confront death and their own mortality.

Los oaxaqueños celebrate three nights. The first is for los niños, who have left this world much too soon. The second is for los difuntos, some of whose departures we were prepared for, others whose partings shocked us and sometimes shocks us even months and years later.

The last night, the third night, is for los antepasados. The ones whose footsteps walked this earth before us, whose steps echo in the air around us todavía, vibrating up from the ground to pierce our souls. Especially in the mountains, where the sounds of footfalls can travel vast distances.

Celebrating the ancestors carries a great deal of meaning in a place and with a people who still hold on tight to their Indigenous traditions, their languages, and practices. The colors of their food and vibrancy of their songs.

During this autumnal celebration, families set up their ofrendas. On the altars are placed a variety of different, meaningful things: photographs of the dearly departed; items that once belonged to them, whatever they loved or brought them joy in this life; candies and sugar skulls, money and candles, symbolic representations of both Christian and Indigenous beliefs; plates of chicken in mole negro or whatever else they may want to eat; and of course, the mezcal. You cannot forget the mezcal, for during these nights the dead are not only hungry but also very thirsty from their long journey from Mictlán.

The whole ofrenda is then festooned with the campesúchil and other flowers.

In places like Oaxaca, where the traditions run strong, the family will spend an entire day cleaning the graves of their relatives, placing fresh flowers and other decorations. Sometimes these are large structures made of wood and shiny things, elaborate altars in their own right.

At night, they visit their dead, eating and drinking and listening to the music played by the bands they or another family hired. Candles are everywhere, and the air is perfumed with fragrant and intoxicating smells.

There is some disagreement over the origins of Day of the Dead. Some scholars argue that it is purely European, its traditions having much in common with the Danse Macabre. Others promote an Indigenous origin. Or, at the very least, that the holiday is syncretic, pointing to similar festivals celebrated by the Aztecs, including Quecholli, the fourteenth month of their calendar, which fell around the same time as the modern Day of the Dead.

The truth, like so many social practices and traditions in Mexico, probably lies somewhere in between. After all, the ancient Ben ’Zaa (Zapotec) lived among their dead, burying them beneath the patio floors of their houses. For those of higher status, their tombs would be reopened as often as their descendants needed, the femurs of the most venerated among them removed for use in political and religious ceremonies. Similarly, the bundled, mummified relatives of the Ñuù Savi (Mixtec) elite were consulted frequently for advice, for the wisest wisdom comes from those with experience and hindsight.

In a land where people were corn tortillas to be fed to the gods and amaranth dough statues of the gods were consumed by people, where blood was life and skulls were carved into the stones that decorated temples, what does it truly matter how European, Indigenous, or even invented nationalist propaganda this current celebration of the dance between death and life is?

In the end, when the ofrenda, that decorated altar to the honored dead, is built, and the mezcal is poured and shared while the band plays its songs as we gather around the graves, it truly matters not.

The dead are still going to make their visits.

It was 2017, and I was feverishly working on my dissertation, trying to finish it before the grace period after my comprehensive exams ended that same fall semester. A deadline I had already extended several times—I was fairly sure that another extension would not be granted.

I was ready to shed myself of this liminal stage, emerge as a shattered butterfly at the other end of the tunnel. This meant days stuck inside, glued to table, chair, and laptop. But this year I was down in Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead celebrations for the first time in my life, and the festivities taking place outside my window were a siren’s call, often tempting me to go outside for at least a little while and marinate in all that was going on.

That year Agústin, whose house we were living in, let me place a photo of my grandpa on his family’s ofrenda. I’m an infant on his lap, my neck barely able to hold my head. His hands hold mine, a quiet joy on his face. My birth year is neatly written on the back.

I had been thinking about him a lot lately, my grandpa. As if the closer I got to finishing my dissertation, the more palpable his presence was becoming, the veil between us slowly morphing into a gossamer wisp.

That year, Mexico had been hit by two major earthquakes, one off the coast of Chiapas and the other in Mexico City itself, followed by hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of aftershocks. Though not anywhere near the epicenters, many places throughout Oaxaca experienced damage.

One such place was the city’s municipal panteón, where tourists are traditionally allowed to visit and observe Day of the Dead celebrations. The municipal government made the decision to shift tourism to the cemetery in the Xochimilco barrio—one of the oldest in the city, as it was both a pre-Hispanic settlement and one of three towns originally established by the Spanish in the early years of the Colonial period.

But Xochimilco’s cemetery is much smaller, much more personal. The people who live in this barrio have deep roots there. The very soil contains and holds dear their abuelos y abuelas, tíos y tías, children, loved ones. All buried there in that cemetery. The people of this barrio spent the days before the celebrations cleaning the graves, arranging flowers around them. Preparing for those moments that the curtain would be lifted and the dead would reach out to the living.

I think that when the decision came down from on high, that the mayordomo and the church elders must have reluctantly agreed to host the tourists. Having never done so before, it was certainly against their better judgment.

I spent those same days neither living nor dead, but as a shadow. Flitting about the edges, a whisper of a ghost, venturing out here and there to remind myself that there was still life existing beyond a dissertation that needed to be written. I spent those days wringing out as many words as I could, then going over them and somehow pulling out more.

The first night I walked carefully among the graves. I did not take pictures; everything seemed too solemn, too heavy. Instead, I observed the tourists stumble their way about, oohing and aahing at the flower displays, snapping away with camera phones. Not as careful of the dead beneath their feet as they should have been.

The second night I returned to listen to the music, to commune with both the dead and the living. To mourn those that I, too, had recently lost. To experience the rawness of grief among a community of mourners. That night, the tourists trampled among the dead. They spoke too loudly, ignored the sacredness of the proceedings around them. Wrapped too deeply in the selfishness of their own experiences.

That night, I gave a stern lecture to a young American woman with a loud vocal fry and her boisterous friends. Reminded them to respect the dead, that the celebrations happening around them were not for their amusement. Not just mere performances for tourist eyes.

The third night, they closed the cemetery to the tourists.

The people of Xochimilco had had enough.

Perhaps at one point, I was a tourist here. But after so much time spent in Oaxaca, so many years walking the hills and the ridgelines, speaking with the people and eating of the food, drinking the mezcal, brindiando de la vida oaxaqueña, as one might say, I had become something else. Yet another liminal stage for me to float through. A paisana and a foreigner, but never a tourist. I know the secrets of the landscape too well, had wrapped myself like quesillo de doble crema around the culture too much.

Sometimes I think this is why my former field project chief was and is so mad at me, has me permanently blocked at the museum, why I can’t be a research associate even today. Why he’ll never forgive me. Because of how easily I had slipped in, till after only a few weeks the workers, well damn, they were calling me jefa too.

The lilt of my Spanish is just too strong. I speak campesino, my r’s singing no matter where they are placed in a word. I have eaten deer and iguana hunted in the mountains. I have been pierced by maguey needles, my blood and my sweat have dripped onto and into the earth. I have almost died in those mountains, several times over. Sliding along the pine needles and oak leaves, wondering if I would ever reach safe ground.

Nimbly I made my way along goat trails that hugged the hillsides, praying that eventually we would reach terra firma. Emerged out of those same mountains just to reach a small pueblo and go inside the nearest store, ask for a Coca-Cola bien frío en vidrio. As if we had appeared out of nowhere, fantasmas that had suddenly manifested there.

And one time, after a temazcal with a curandero where we traveled from birth to death and all the life stages in-between, after our mushrooms had been blessed by his wife, a curandera in her own right, I even saw a god in the clouds. Watched him open his jaws, his feathered, serpentine form winding around the steep sides of the mountains.

I was awed, I was blessed. A veil had been lifted, and I understood the ancestors. I got to peek into their thoughts, know the bent of their minds. How one could envision Quetzalcoatl, witness his being before their eyes. For I saw it too. Magnificent before me.

You can never be a tourist after that.

Not after all that.

I cannot remember his name, only that he wore an impressive sombrero. He was a friend of someone in Xochimilco, had been introduced to us that way. I can remember that one time we chilled in his car though, drinking beer and mezcal and chatting.

By the time Día de los Muertos had rolled around, my partner, Charly, was away in Monterrey. But on that last day, the third night, the man in the sombrero returned. We talked, and I told him that the tourists had been shut out, how funny was that? They had been too rude, I said, too lacking in understanding of the flow of events around them.

But we can go, he had told me. We were conocidos, invitados, we would be fine. He was a friend, and I would be his guest. Besides, didn’t I live in the neighborhood too?

So on the night when all other foreigners had been barred, I was allowed in. The man in the sombrero and I went into the cemetery of Xochimilco, nodded hello at the neighbors. We set ourselves up near some graves. Go ahead. He nodded at one. Sit down. It felt transgressive, but I had his permission and no one said anything. We sat down on some marble graves, passed a bottle of mezcal between us and other compatriots.

At some point the music the band was playing called to us and we danced, there among the graves. Carefully of course, but still our feet flew, hands behind our backs as we twisted and turned around each other following the traditional steps of the village dances I had learned from innumerable fiestas patronales.

The first two nights are serious, appropriate for the grief everyone feels. The third night, ah, but that is for celebrating the lives of our antepasados through the millennia, to celebrate the lives they lived and the roots they established in the earth we trod upon. It was an ecstatic kind of joy, the kind that experiences both life and death all wrapped up together, a bittersweet harmony, and welcomes it.

The veil was gone. Dead and living mingled in dance and music and mezcal. We felt their presence, welcomed their soothing embrace, experienced their happiness that they could have these moments with us. Beautiful liminality, hovering at the edges.

After a few hours, blissfully drunk, I went home. Surrounded by the love of spirits, of my grandpa in particular, whose calm love and quiet joy I had been missing so much.

With that love secure in my heart, I finished my dissertation.

N.K. van Riemsdijk is an anthropologist and archaeologist who has been living and working in Oaxaca, Mexico, for over 15 years. Her research focuses on the historical development of the Yautepec region, examining the relationships between individuals, communities, landscapes and place. She often explores these topics, along with other themes such as grief, loss, memory, liminality and liminal phenomena, in her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction pieces.

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