Days of the Dead

A man dressed in drag dances and poses in the lights of a police vehicle as the residents of Tule Mexico exit the city cemetery following a dance party on November 2, 2013.

A man dressed in drag dances and poses in the lights of a police vehicle as residents The residents of Tule Mexico exit the city cemetery following a dance part on November 2, 2013. Photo: Alex Washburn

Alex did a pretty good job of filling everyone in on what was going on in Oaxaca for day of the dead (in fact there are multiple days of the dead, with one big celebration at the beginning for All Hallows’ Eve). It begs to be mentioned that for every flash happy maverick we saw in the cemeteries, there were plenty of tourists being respectful of the families and celebration (though there were a crushing amount of tourists).

On Friday afternoon we got back from Tule cemetery and having been out late the night before, going to three cemeteries for Day of the Dead, we thought we’d just spend the night in. However, someone was going around the hostel promoting a cemetery tour that night that would go to a couple of cemeteries we hadn’t been too.

We said yes and signed up, and only after did I find out it didn’t start till 8:30 and was a five to six hour tour (you read that right) meaning it wouldn’t be over till one or two in the morning. I almost ducked out at the last minute before the tour started, and after what was to come, I wish I had.

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The tour was the worst both Alex and I had ever been on for a multitude of reasons. The person conducting the tour (asshat) hadn’t done any research and half of the cemeteries we went to ended up being closed for the night by the time we got there. Of the two we did visit, one was Tule (where we had just been earlier in the day) and the other was the main cemetery in Oaxaca (where we had been the night before). While touring the two cemeteries we did go to, the guide didn’t offer any insight or knowledge of what was going on and I honestly think Alex and I know more about Day of the Dead than he did.

After leaving the main cemetery at 11pm, we then proceeded to be dragged from closed cemetery to closed cemetery until finally at 1am, the tour asked for the guide to just take us back to the hostel (where he informed us he wanted to take us to one more place that was supposed to be happening, we didn’t bite). Once returned, he offered us a free tour the next night, but we all declined citing other plans. I could think of nothing worse then to have to relive that experience again. I would pay money to not have to go a second time.

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

We spent the last night touring the celebrations in Tule and Oaxaca, which is where I met a posse of drag queens and was escorted around town. The next morning it was time to pack all the gear, load the bikes and head on out to the gulf coast.

Alex’s cousin (who is a truck driver) told us that there were three options out of Oaxaca: 1) was a pleasant, but relatively boring back-track, 2) was over 200 miles of hairpins going kind of the wrong direction, and 3) (the one we picked) was just over 100 miles of s-turns with gorgeous views and a nature reserve.

Heading out of Oaxaca and into the mountains, it was all climb for the first two hours of the ride. What had started as a warm, muggy day in the valley quickly turned into a chilling, foggy climb where at one point we broke through the fog (yes literally climbed above the clouds),

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

before descending once more into the mist. However, about right at the halfway point, the road circled the mountain and started heading down and we were suddenly in the middle of the nature reserve complete with roadside waterfalls.

If you are ever in the Oaxaca region with your bike, you have to take the road from Tuxtepec to Oaxaca (hwy-175). Make sure your bike can handle the mountain terrain, but the views you get will be some of the best anywhere. We finally made our final descent, and rode on to Tuxtepec for the night.

Oaxaca

Martin Santiago Lopez plants marigolds for day of the dead on the tomb of his grandfather as his mother watches in the cemetery of Santa Maria del Tule, Mexico. Most of their family buried in the cemetery and since the family trade is landscaping they use a lot of plants in their Dia De Los Muertos decorations. Photo: Alex Washburn

Martin Santiago Lopez plants marigolds for day of the dead on the tomb of his grandfather as his mother watches in the cemetery of Santa Maria del Tule, Mexico. Most of their family buried in the cemetery and since the family trade is landscaping they use a lot of plants in their Dia De Los Muertos decorations.Photo: Alex Washburn

Oaxaca is a fantastic city. It’s known for so much I might pity its advertisers when they need to select what to highlight for the city and state. Do you gush and rave about the food? The diversity of languages and cultures? The handicrafts? The scenery? The architecture?

In the months leading up to October 31st, November 1st and November 2nd most of the hype seems to be about the Dia De los Muertos celebrations that the city and surrounding areas immerse themselves in. But, I’ve noticed a shift in the atmosphere in the three years since I last visited Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.

More tourists and more Halloween.

As someone recently told Miriam Jordan for the Wall Street Journal:

It’s not mexican halloween.

But as awareness of Day of the Dead spreads through the United States and beyond I believe we are going to see more and more candy corn and Jack-o-Lanterns creeping into the holiday.

People walk past graffiti protesting the Halloween-ization of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

People walk past graffiti protesting the Halloween-ization of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

I’m not directly irritated by Dia De Los Muertos celebrations spreading in the United States, but it has the affect of getting tourists to throw down their plastic and crowd cemeteries as REAL people try and observe traditions their family has more or less followed longer than they’ve been speaking spanish.

Day of the dead is something even the Spaniards couldn’t destroy but how will it fare against Disney?

As I feel my anger building on the subject I have one memory playing over and over in my mind. A little old woman hunched over in the Xoxocotlan cemetery surrounded by a half dozen people popping flashes at her. One woman (who told Nathaniel she was a hobbyist being escorted through the Dia De Los Muertos festivities by a National Geographic photographer) had a remote flash that she worked that little old woman over with for at least 30 minutes. And I don’t mean one shot every few minutes – I mean celebrity style motordrive shooting at times. At one point she even placed the flash on the grave the woman was mourning over.

I asked the woman’s family member (I assume daughter) if the photographer had asked to take her photo and she said no. I asked her if the old woman was bothered by it and she said yes and explained that was why the woman had stood up and turned away from the cameras for a while. I offered to intervene for them because the photographer didn’t speak spanish but she said it was okay and thanked me anyway.

We stood and watched horrified by it… we think she was with a Photo Xpeditions Tour .

The hobbyist photographer was certainly more aggressive than most but at times it seemed there were more tourists and TV crews present than locals.

Four photographers focus on one woman in the old cemetery of Xoxocotlan. The photographer to the far left used a remote flash on her for at least 30 minutes. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

Four photographers focus on one woman in the old cemetery of Xoxocotlan. The photographer to the far left used a remote flash on her for at least 30 minutes. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

I might be a hypocrite for allocating so much space to complain about the effects of tourism when I myself am a tourist. But, I think people need to use more common sense when they try and absorb the traditions of other countries.

How would that photographer feel if someone she didn’t know accosted her the same way? Someone she couldn’t talk to and was maybe a little afraid of?

Every photo you see in this blog post of someone in a cemetery I either had a very lengthy conversation with (see photo at the top of the post) or a short exchange with to assess wether or not they were okay with my camera and I being present (see photo below).


A young boy lights candles with his sister and grandfather in the main cemetery of Xoxocotlan Mexico in observance of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

A young boy lights candles with his sister and grandfather in the main cemetery of Xoxocotlan Mexico in observance of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

Our first day out for Dia De Los Muertos Nathaniel and I went to three different cemeteries – one of which was during the day for both of us and another I visited during the day alone and took Nathaniel back to later at night.

For me – the sweetest memory so far has been standing in the cemetery of Tule with Martin Santiago Lopez and his mother and learning from them about their town’s history and the people they loved that are now buried there. I was hesitant to speak to them at first, but when I saw them openly engaging with some other daytime visitors I approached to strike up a conversation.

They were incredibly welcoming to me (and my camera) and told Nathaniel and I to come back to Tule today (Saturday) for their town’s big party in the afternoon, which we intend to do.

The photos do not have the soft romantic glow of like the other images I took later in the night but they are authentic images of wonderful people freely giving permission to be photographed by the only camera in the cemetery, which to me is more ideal than candles and a solitary figure hunched over hoping I will go away.

The second night we decided to take a tour and see if it was surprisingly insightful or as terrible as we feared, but Nathaniel will tell you more about that tomorrow.

A woman carries marigolds traditionally used for Dia De Los Muertos decorations through the town of Xoxocotlan Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

A woman carries marigolds traditionally used for Dia De Los Muertos decorations through the town of Xoxocotlan Mexico on October 31, 2013. Photo: Alex Washburn

Huamantla

My cousin Cesar sprinkles water on our Abuelita's grave in preparation for Dia De Lose Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

My cousin Cesar sprinkles water on our Abuelita’s grave in preparation for Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

What kept me motivated in the 11 hour ride from Guadalajara to Huamantla was that I knew once we arrived we’d have nothing to worry about. We’d be able to roll the motorcycles into a locked patio, a comfy full size bed heaped with blankets would be ready for us and my Aunt Sylvia would feed us something hot and delicious before we crawled into it.

These expectations were fully met when we rolled into town an hour or so after dark and after parking our motorcycles we were whisked off to my Uncle Andres and Aunty Sylvia’s home to be fed and make plans for the few days we would be in town.

The first round of guests sits down to plates of carnitas at a Huichan family party. Photo: Alex Washburn

The first rounds of gets sits down to plates of carnitas at a Huichan family party. Photo: Alex Washburn

My Mom was really awesome to organize a pig feed for the family (with help from my cousin Cesar) and so the next day and half was spent doing little errands around town preparing for it.The biggest errand however was picking up the pig and having it butchered 24 hours before the party. (Nathaniel declined to watch the slaughter of the pig.)

As the time for the party approached on Tuesday things got busy around the house and then relatives started to trickle in… and they kept coming for hours. I think Nathaniel had to say ‘Mucho Gusto’ at least 100 times so it’s a good thing I made it one of the phrases he learned before we left California.

By the end of the night the 103 lb. pig was more or less gone and most people left in some state of dizzying food coma brought on by copious amounts of fried pork, tortillas, candy, rice, refrescos and beer.

During the party several of my relatives asked to take photos with Nathaniel (and by relatives I mean young females). I thought it was hilarious and Nathaniel fully embraced his role at the family gathering as ‘el g├╝erro’.

To disturb the neighbors as little as possible the butchers decided to kill the pig in a field a few blocks from the house. Photo: Alex Washburn

To disturb the neighbors as little as possible the butchers decided to kill the pig in a field a few blocks from the house. Photo: Alex Washburn

My Spanish got the biggest work out of the trip (even tougher than dealing with immigration) as a bro-mance began to form between Cesar and Nathaniel. They used me to make jokes at each other back and forth for days and I told them I was glad they couldn’t directly talk to each other because then we would all be in trouble.

Boys herding sheep on the edge of town. Photo: Alex Washburn

Boys herding sheep on the edge of town. Photo: Alex Washburn

After a few days of puttering around Huamantla and visiting my Grandmother’s grave we finally had to leave yesterday morning and push onward (to Oaxaca). In true Mexican fashion we had a contingent of people saying goodbye to us at 7:30 in the morning and a car carrying my Mom, Cesar, Uncle Andres and other cousin Mavy drove with us for the first 10 miles and said goodbye to us on the edge of the carretera.

Although we did a lot of family stuff I was really glad Nathaniel got to experience Huamantla and meet all the people he’s heard me talk so much about. It was fun yet exhausting and now we are looking forward to some low key adventures surrounding day of the dead.

For all you motorcyclists out there – the drive from Puebla to Oaxaca city is about 5 hours long and the last 2-3 hours are gorgeous well paved and wide mountain roads.

***Note: Nathaniel would like me to add a footnote that he does not agree with me using the photo of the pig slaughter in this post and he is afraid of it offending our viewership.