Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Letter from Oaxaca

I received an email from my friends, Kate and Sonny and they've allowed me to post it here. This is a beautifully written account of how they experienced Dia de los Muertos for the first time. I'm green with envy.
Greetings friends and family

We've just spent our first días de los muertos in Oaxaca and we've got pictures!

Sonny has been working like mad, mapping the entire Cerro Danush. As he is a "buen jefe," he gave his workers Thursday and Friday off, which was quite convenient for us as well since our new Oaxacan friends had quite a few things planned for us.

Wednesday night, Halloween, we went to the panteón in Xoxocotlán, an area of the city known to tourists across the globe for their fiesta in the cemetery on the 31st. It was more like a feria than the somber holiday we imagined. Food vendors lined the streets around the cemetery; day-glo sticks, candles, and assorted plastic chotchkes were for sale at the panteón's entrance, and a group of catholic school kids stood on a stage and sang contemporary Christian "rock" songs. Inside were hamburger and hot dog vendors and literally mobs of people. The 31st is traditionally the night that children who have died are remembered. Children dressed in costumes (only a few costumes are allowed—skeletons, witches, "la muerte" in her many forms) ask for money, which they use to buy sugar skulls to place on altars for all of the spirits who have no family to remember them, and for the espiritus apenas, the spirits who died violently or quickly who need a little extra sweetness to carry them to purgatory. There were kids everywhere dressed as ghouls asking for money, which they carried in little plastic jack-o-lantern tubs just like kids in the states. We ran into two different sets of neighbors, all from the US. There seemed to be more tourists than celebrants, but then it was hard to say. While we may think it is unseemly to intrude on what seems like a private celebration, in Xoxo Wednesday night it seemed purposely public, with families intermingling with tourists (offering mezcal...but we'll get to that later), and a desire to show their elaborately decorated graves. Several bands played at the graves, commissioned by the families to play the favorite songs of the deceased. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any decent pictures that night, but if you've seen any pictures of Oaxaca during los días, you have surely seen Xoxo.

Thursday morning we went to Macquilxochitl, the Zapotec village where Sonny does his work, to have chocolate and pan de muertos with Tomás, one of the men who works with Sonny. We have known Tomas and his family since 2003, so it was wonderful to go back to their house for a visit. Tomas' wife Matilde is from Veracruz, but she prepares everything the way the do traditionally in Oaxaca. Their house is made of adobe and is laid out similarly to the way Zapotecs lived hundreds if not thousands of years ago, with several one-room, rectangular buildings surrounding a dirt patio. Tomás and Matilde live there with their three children and Tomás's mother, who is 83 years old. In the courtyard are turkeys, chickens, a penned-in pig, and a couple of dogs. One of the buildings is used for cooking. Every morning, Matilde wakes up at 3:30 to prepare fresh tortillas to sell in the Teotitlán del Valle market. She told us that she and her daughter make about 150 a day to sell. Unlike most vendors these days, she makes tortillas the original way, with corn they grow just outside their property. After treating the corn with lime, she crushes the wet hominy on a volcanic stone metate, forms the masa into tortillas, and cooks them on a wood-fired, adobe stove. An anthropologist introduced a machine for grinding the corn years ago, so that is how most people do it, but I have to say, Matilde's tortillas were truly the very best I've ever had, with a strong, fresh corn aroma and a beautiful, soft touch, which I guess comes from the hand grinding of the hominy. She also makes tlyudas, the over-size tortillas Oaxacans use to make delicious meals (more on that later!).

Matilde served us bowls of steaming hot chocolate made with milk and the unique Oaxacan chocolate, a mix of fresh-ground cocao beans, almonds, cinnamon (they use the Sri Lankan soft cinnamon) and sugar from sugar cane. She also served a huge pile of pan de yema, Oaxaca's style of pan de muertos. Unlike the kind of bread we were familiar with (round loaves with little "bones" on top and lots of sugar), the Oaxacan style is a light egg bread with seeds sprinkled on top that is incredibly fluffy with a lovely crisp crust and a little head of a figurine nestled inside the fissure on top. It is sometimes flavored with anis (or something similar -- I'm not sure what exactly) and when you dip it in the chocolate, the soaked bread is absolutely delicious. She also served us chicken with mole negro, the "king of moles." The chicken came from their yard and the mole from the city. Even on the day we visited, Matilde had gotten up at 3:30 to make tortillas to sell, and to prepare the mole and chocolate for us and for their padrinos or god-parents. It is the tradition to bring chocolate, bread, and mole (or tamales) to your padrinos during the days of the dead. While we were eating, the kids took some of the goods to their godparents, and after we left, they were all going over to drink more chocolate and eat more mole with the padrinos. In the room where we ate (which is their dining room/sleeping quarters) was the ofrenda, the altar, a table adorned with yellow flowers (mostly marigolds), apples, unpeeled jicama, pan de muertos, glasses of water and chocolate, candles, and pictures of la virgen and other saints. Many of the people of Macquilxochitl do not have photographs of their relatives (living or dead), so they are not a part of their ofrendas. (We noticed, too, that there were no skulls. In the markets they sell skulls made of sugar, chocolate and amaranth, but the ofrendas we saw in Macquilxochitl and the ones in the city represented by smaller villages (like Mitla and Teotitlan) did not have the skulls, so perhaps they are not a part of the tradition in Zapotec villages.) Before we left, Matilde prepared bags of food for us to bring home, including pan de yema, chocolate (enough for us to share with our neighbors, Jack and Enid, our Oaxacan "padrinos"!), two large jicama, apples, oranges, tortillas and tlyudas. Matilde offered us mole too, but we said no because we know how much she had already worked and we didn't want to add to her already busy day.

I think our experience with Tomás and Matilde is more typical of the actual, traditional días experience, but that's not to say the more "tourist" stuff isn't fun. For sure!

Here's what we did Thursday night:

We've been so lucky to make friends with a number of Oaxacan artists, including Jonathan Barbieri, an American-born painter who has lived here for over 20 years. He's as "Oaxacan" as most native born Oaxacans. His wife is from Juchitan, his daughters grew up here, and he was even a member of the bienes comunales, the local town council, of the village he lived in, Reyes de Etla, He took us to San Agustín de Etla (there are many Etlas) for the famous comparsas, parades.

Traditionally, only men dress for comparsas (though San Agustin has a women-only comparsa next weekend!), and that means that some are in drag to play the "la muerte" part in all of her forms, including the Nurse, the Nun, the Bride, and the Spinster (all dead, of course). In San Agustin, there are three comparsas each representing a different neighborhood. Some members of the community spend all year making elaborate costumes of mirrors and bells. They're incredible! Beginning around 10 at night, the three groups begin to parade around town with brass bands and they go until around 4 in the morning when they come together in the town square. Along the way, they stop in to different people's homes to sing limericks about the heads of the households. It's an opportunity for them to make fun of the patrons of the town, giving serious digs at times, all in the context of theater. The doctor is present, as is the nurse, and of course the difunto, the dead guy. The band plays a crazy mix of brass tunes and a poem is read. It's outrageous. And, of course, there are the ubiquitous bottles of mezcal, beer, and empty soda bottles filled with sniffing glue (yes -- kids do that here, and it turns them into zombies).

But back to the costumes. Here are a few:

The whips are made of bull-cock, supposedly. I don't quite know why they carry them, except that the whole comparsa scene involves a lot of drinking, so perhaps they need the whips when the night gets long. I hope not, but then who knows!

I took some video of one of the "roastings" and I will send it in a different email.

[The video is posted below]

After San Agustin, we drove to two other Etlas looking for comparsas, including Reyes de Etla, the town where Jonathan lived for many years. By the time we were there, most of the paraders were completely wasted on Mezcal and who knows what else. It's said that dias de muertos is a way of laughing in the face of death, and perhaps it is, though there seems to be a lot of trying to forget it too, by drinking and drinking and drinking. We especially saw this the next night, when we went to the cemetery in Tule.

In Tule, the celebration is also public like in Xoxo, though no doubt the vast majority of the people do not go to the cemetery at night, but rather stay at home with their altars and eat with their families. But we saw the public celebration, which included families in mourning (we met a man who had lost three siblings and a sister-in-law this past year -- two were killed in the firecracker factory where they worked, and two were killed in a car accident) and those who had come out to say "hello" to their dead (a man who'd lost his mother ten years ago). Just as at Xoxo, there were bands playing at the graves, but also at this little covered area of the cemetery, where people danced, including costumed couples of men in drag. Unlike Xoxo, there were not many non-Mexican tourists and there were no food vendors.

Of course, even in death there is a stratification of class -- some graves were simply dirt mounds, while others were elaborate stone tombs.

This gentleman was celebrating the life of his mother who died ten years before. What better way to celebrate than with music and mezcal? Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to escape all of the drinking, even at the cemetery, where so many are buried who died in alcohol-related accidents. I don't drink much, and I was basically forced to have a little at multiple graves. They're insistent! Somehow I doubt, though, that the families who stay home are drinking quite this much.

Luckily, our group was well fortified before all the mezcal. We'd gone to eat barbacoa (barbequed goat) beforehand. The meat is placed inside tin foil or banana leafs and then cooked, served with rice and tortillas. Delicious!

Our San Agustin night was our latest, though all were pretty late (like after 1 a.m.). We had a 'traditional' late-night snack around 3 in the morning on Thursday night, an absolutely delicious tlyuda on Los Libres in the city at Tlyudas Libres, a street-side place that opens around 10 and closes around 4 or so. Two ladies fan the charcoal fires and place pieces of tesajo and cecina (skirt steak and pork) direcly on the coals. Two other women spread a little rendered pork fat on the tlyudas, then pureed black beans and a sprinkle of salsa and fresh cheese. They fold the tlyudas and put them on the coals to heat up. With "verduras" means they include a little shredded cabbage in the fold:

So no, it's not the sort of thing to eat every day, but when in Rome!! And let's face it, Oaxaca is not the Rome of food.

I hope you all had a safe and fun Halloween.

As the sign welcoming us into Macquilxochitl says, Cuida tu vida! Guard your life, dear friends, and please take care.

Wishing you peace these last days of autumn

Kate and Sonny


mucho gusto said...


Kate said...

Thanks so much for posting all this, Maria! You're so sweet.

So yeah, I meant to say that Oaxaca IS the Rome of food, but then that would have been equally silly to what I did write, since Oaxaca is nothing like Rome, and sadly for Romans, there are no roadside tlyuda shops. Boo hoo!

Hope to see you guys later this month.


red rabbit said...

de nada