Oaxaca, Mexico — Salvador Cortez Santiago is seated at edge of a large window in his colonial era home on a quiet street in the center of the city of Oaxaca, people walking by can’t help but peer in and catch a peek of the altar he has set up for Day of the Dead to commemorate his ancestors.
The altar, known as an ofrenda, is adorned with Mexican marigolds, a flower synonymous with Day of the Dead activities in Mexico, as well as photos of his departed loved ones; placed in front are the food and beverages they enjoyed in their lives. It is said that on Day of the Dead relatives who have passed can visit with their families, the flowers and offerings help them find their way home and feel welcomed.
“When I set up my altar, I remember them and if I don’t forget them they’re not lost,” Cortez told the Two Row Times. “If they live through me, they’re not gone.”
Cortez, who is 37 years-old, said that for as long as he can remember his family has been participating in the tradition, his earliest memories are of his grandmother setting up an altar to commemorate family members who had passed.
“Over the years, my relatives have passed but the tradition continues, and I am teaching my children, because when I’m gone I’d like for my children to put an altar for me,” said Cortez.
Although Day of the Dead is an Indigenous custom that dates back to pre-Columbian times and has been observed for millennia, the influence of North American culture has made it so that many Mexican children are more interested in Halloween.
However, Day of the Dead has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts, curiously because of a sudden interest in the tradition by people in North America. It began in 2015 with the James Bond film Spectre, which opened on a scene depicting a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. Oddly enough, this parade was not actually observed in the city until tourism officials in Mexico – anticipating visitors seeking this parade – decided to organize it. Since then the parade has been widely embraced by locals, with hundreds of thousands turning out yearly to watch the colourful displays down Paseo de la Reforma.
The real interest in Day of the Dead, however, came as a result of the Disney film Coco. A huge commercial success, the movie’s mostly faithful depiction of the tradition helped introduce Day of the Dead to the world.
Cultural critics suggested that this “cultural appropriation” of the tradition and Disney’s profit motive would lead to a distortion of Day of the Dead but instead it led to a newfound interest by Mexican children in the tradition.
“From my point of view, it’s a good thing, the tradition is being lost among the youth, they’re more interested in Halloween, to party and drink, the essence of Day of the Dead is lost, but the movie seemed to be faithful to the Mexican tradition, it revives the traditions that I’d like my children to keep,” said Cortez.
This year on the streets of Oaxaca you were more likely to find people with their faces painted with La Calavera Catrina than wearing scary or sexy Halloween costumes.
Ofrendas and Comparsas
In the smaller towns outside the capital city, the Day of the Dead tradition never really lost its prominence.
The cemetery in the town of San Felipe del Agua is bustling with people, the graves here have been cleaned and decorated by their families and many relatives remain here at night, keeping each other and their ancestors company.
“More so than Christmas, more so than New Year, Day of the Dead is the occasion for our family to come together,” Julia Rios told the Two Row Times.
Her family’s grave is one of the most elaborately decorated ofrendas, located near the centre of the cemetery, people flock to it to take pictures. This year’s decoration depicts the journey of the dead as they travel through to the spirit world. It becomes a family project, with everyone contributing one way or another and she enjoys people coming to enjoy the hard work they’ve put in.
Rios is also happy to see the Day of the Dead tradition having a resurgence, she welcomes all though who are interested in learning about Day of the Dead, and if that interest came about as a result of the movie, then she sees nothing wrong with that.
She also says she does not mind seeing the newer generations make it their own.
“Everything must evolve,” said Rios.
When she was a child, she would come to the cemetery and play with other children, something you see less of today, instead the occasion has a festive spirit.
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca can certainly sometimes feel like a party, there is a lot of music, dancing and drinking of mezcal, a liquor made from the agave plant. In the town of Villa de Etla, the tradition is slightly different. There people gather in the town square and parade around the town, going from house to house with a live band in what is called a comparsa, where they sing and dance while drinking mezcal.
“It is joyous in a sense, we celebrate, coming together, buying things, making the effort,” said Rios.
But Rios is clear, at the end of the day; it does not stop being a solemn occasion. Although solemn does not necessarily mean sad, it is very much a spiritual occasion.
Those Left Out
Throughout the week the centre of the city of Oaxaca is bustling with tourists, at times it is difficult to even move through the crowd. The interest in Day of the Dead has been a boon for tourism, restaurants have hour-long waits and every hotel room in the city is booked.
But not everyone is benefitting from the waves of tourists visiting. A few metres from the famous Templo de Santo Domingo is the Tianguis Cultural, where local artisans usually sell their handmade crafts, but on this day they’re not selling, they’re protesting. Government officials prevented from selling on these key days.
“They claim that there is no money, yes there is money circulating, but they don’t allow that money to circulate among those who really need it: the people,” Hector, a spokesperson with the Tianguis Cultural Street Vendors, told the Two Row Times.
Meanwhile, high-end shops located just down the street, have been allowed to keep their doors open.
“How many foreign-owned stores have set up here in the state [of Oaxaca]? It’s an invasion, like like the ones before, now it is an invasion of commerce,” said Hector.
The same people who own these high-end retail shops, that cater to foreign tourists, are the ones who push the government to suspend the artisan street markets.
These street markets were once a major part of festivities, even appearing in the official program, but the arrival of the high-end shops slowly marginalized them.
Hector argues that artisans like him are just as much a part of the Day of the Dead tradition as the ofrendas and comparsas.
“The foreign tourist has a great appreciation for our culture, they come here seeking it, they want to take Mexican art home with them,” said Hector. “But how is that art meant to go home with them if they ban us from selling?”
Like many others, he is happy to see people coming to Oaxaca to appreciate an important tradition like Day of the Dead but asks that tourists think of the locals and give business to these artisans.
The renewed interest in the Day of the Dead tradition has already brought much good with it, the hope is that the interest persists and that the benefits of it reach everyone.
“Above all, we have to defend our traditions and culture,” said Hector.