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Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca

I arrived in Oaxaca for the first time under the velvety cover of night during the last week of October. My airBnB was next to the Panteon General (the main cemetery), on a quiet street. When I walked outside the next morning I came face to face with a disembodied metal dragon, just a head with weather-worn green scales and a frozen expression of drangony rage. The half-dragon shifted, hoisted by a young man with clear eyes as old as time. When I returned later in the day, the carnival outside the cemetery was almost fully erected. A swirl of bright lights and colors coexisting — inviting — the dead sleeping a few feet away.

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman in Oaxaca, Mexico at night.
Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman in Oaxaca, Mexico at night.

Mexico unfolds as a series of dreamlike, sensory vignettes like this every time I visit. It is the most mysterious and magical country in the world. I’m not the only one who senses this. French writer and poet André Breton, founder of Surrealism, visited Mexico in 1936, took a look around and promptly remarked: “Our art movement is not needed here.”

LEFT: Man and horse crushing baked maguey at Diamante Real, a mezcal cooperative in San Baltazar Chichicapam in Oaxaca, Mexico. RIGHT: Various mescal infusions at artisanal mezcaleria in San Baltazar Chichicapam in Oaxaca, Mexico. Drinking mezcal can be something of a mystical experience, tasting the sun-kissed desert. It is normal for many families who make mezcal to make infusions, usually for personal consumption. In this case it is for the family and friends, with the fruit infusions adding flavor and sweetness. However, the scorpion infusion is medicinal. They are put in live, and the emit the venom from the tail, presumably before dying. Drank it is used as a cure for cough, and as a salve for muscular aches.
LEFT: Man and horse crushing baked maguey at Diamante Real, a mezcal cooperative in San Baltazar Chichicapam in Oaxaca, Mexico. RIGHT: Various mescal infusions at an artisanal mezcaleria in San Baltazar Chichicapam in Oaxaca, Mexico. Drinking mezcal can be something of a mystical experience, a tasting of the sun-kissed desert. Many families who make mezcal create infusions. The scorpion infusion pictured here is medicinal. The creatures are put in live, emitting the venom from the tail before dying. It is used as a cure for cough and as a salve for muscular aches.
The Ethnobotanical Garden at the Temple of Santo Domingo in Oaxcaca, Mexico is unique in that is was designed and arranged by painters with a specific eye for beauty. Feauting plants indigenous to the regions, the project was led by local Oaxaca artist, Francisco Toledo. To walk through the gardens is truly like wandering through a work of art.
LEFT: The Ethnobotanical Garden at the Temple of Santo Domingo in Oaxcaca, Mexico is unique in that is was designed and arranged by painters with a specific eye for beauty. Feauting plants indigenous to the regions, the project was led by local Oaxaca artist, Francisco Toledo. To walk through the gardens is truly like wandering through a work of art. RIGHT: Doña Mariana prepares for a Temazcal ceremony, an offering by Las Bugambilias in Oaxaca. The pre-Hispanic Temazcal is an ancient ceremony that purifies the mind, body, and spirit by combining a cleansing sweat bath with herbs, flowers, song and meditation.

I traveled to Oaxaca to experience Dia de los Muertos. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by ancient civilizations in pre-colonial Mexico for as long as 2,500–3,000 years. Even now, cloaked in years of Catholic tradition, the indigenous rituals around honoring the dead thrive in the annual holiday.

Dia de los Muertos festivities at the Panteon Nuevo (new cemetery) in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, a pueblo in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Dia de los Muertos festivities at the Panteon Nuevo (new cemetery) in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, a pueblo in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The right words that might give shape to the gentle magic that is Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca are elusive. Engage me in a philosophical discussion about life after death (or other metaphysical dimensions) and I’ll always smile, look down at my arms, hands, legs — and then gaze at you, your face fluid with the endless dance of emotions. I will tell you that we are pawing at the firm edge of what we can know with these questions, being limited as we are in these beautiful human bodies. There are truths about this world and this life that will always elude and haunt us. It’s okay. It just is.

But in Oaxaca during Dia de los Muertos, sometimes the magic of these unarticulated truths shimmer through in brief glimpses. The mysterious pathways for loved ones who have passed on to whatever is next are opened with grace and love, with flowers and song.

But enough with my inadequate words. National Geographic Traveller (UK edition) picked it up as a photo essay, out this month:

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