MEXICO: El Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca
The Day of the Dead is celebrated in late October-early November with numerous regional and local variations throughout Mexico as well as in parts of Central America and the US southwest. It has its origins in pre-Columbian festivities that ritually mocked death and embraced a cyclic continuity between the worlds of living and the dead. Failing to suppress such rituals, Spanish Catholic authorities in Mexico attempted to sanitize them by incorporating them into the celebrations of All Souls Day and All Saints Day. For me, it is this syncretic quality--the tense interplay of indigenous and European elements, of paganism and Christianity, mockery and reverence--that makes el Dia de los Muertos so evocative and so fascinating. Festivities in the city of Oaxaca and the surrounding villages take place over a few days, and incorporate several components: parades of costumed children, organized by school or neighborhood and usually accompanied by marching bands; evening parades (or comparsas) of often elaborately costumed participants, accompanied by musicians, and frequently stopping for impromptu bursts of wild dancing; daytime or all-night candlelight graveside vigils by family members, often including decoration of graves with flowers, feasting, mariachi music, and the liberal consumption of mezcal. Everywhere—in toys, confections, breads, decorations, masks and costumes, sand and flower paintings, sculptures—one sees festive and often brilliantly imaginative representations of skulls and skeletons that seem at once playful and macabre. Elaborate altars to dead loved ones are built in homes and businesses, profusely decorated with flowers, skulls, and special foods of the holiday. As a participant-observer of el Dia de los Muertos, what impresses me most deeply is how powerfully it affirms a sense of community among the celebrants, among the generations within the family, and between the living and the dead. For an irreligious loner like me, the experience is alien but also deeply moving. In these photographs, I have striven to capture something of this at once emotionally, intellectually, and artistically compelling experience.