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.
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.”
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.
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: