It’s been a few months since my last post. Where oh where have I been, you ask? (Besides in my underground workshop scribbling away on my novel,) I’ve been in the thrall of a city in constant celebration. Since my last post, Oaxaca has been celebrating one holiday or another. Celebration is what Oaxaca is all about. It reminds me of New Orleans in that respect. Everything is motivation for a party or a festival of some type. And every season holds a few holidays that must be celebrated. Interestingly, Oaxaca’s last holiday gave me insight into a New Orleans tradition.
It’s January. What that traditionally means in New Orleans (and Brazil and Trinidad and various other locations) is that it is Carnival season—Mardi Gras time. In New Orleans, that means we will hear Mardi Gras songs on the radio, and in offices and schools all across the city people will be eating king cake. (How much of it will be retained this year—post-Katrina—has yet to be determined.)
King cake is a bready, donut-like cake in the shape of a circle or an oval. There is a dry variety, sprinkled with sugar—often in Mardi Gras colors: purple, green and gold—and there is a cinnamon roll variety, which is softer and sometimes has a creamy filling. Someone in the office or at school buys the first cake of the season and everyone partakes. Whoever gets the slice with the baby in it has to buy the next cake.
The baby is a little plastic baby with outstretched arms and legs. [I’m listening to my iTunes and Nina Simone is now singing: “There is a house in New Orleans / they call it the Rising Son / and it’s been the ruin of many poor girls / and me, oh lord, I’m one.”]
Now what a plastic baby embedded in a cake has to do with Mardi Gras has always been beyond me. And why is it called a King cake, for that matter? Some bakeries do put a cheap plastic crown on it, but that does nothing to answer the mystery.
Well here I am in Oaxaca. January 2006. And in the windows of the bakeries, what do I see? King cakes! That’s right, cakes in the shape of ovals or circles with sugar and dried fruit on top. The cake is for the holiday of the season: The Day of the Three Kings, January 6. You know the three kings that brought gifts for baby Jesus. Well, this cake is called Rosco de los Reyes. I don’t know what Rosco translates into, but the Reyes are kings. King cake!
Furthermore, there is a plastic baby baked in the cake. This one looks like a figurine of a child, rather than a baby, but it is safe to assume it is the baby Jesus. And whoever gets the baby has to throw a party for El Dia de los Reyes.
I’m not sure exactly what all this means, but I got quite a bit of excitement finding out what the whole king cake/baby thing was all about. I’m not sure if we got it from our shared conquistador: Spain. Or if the king cake came to New Orleans by way of Mexico. Certainly New Orleans has been an international city since its inception. In a book on Latin jazz, Jelly Roll Morton was quoted as stating that he was taught by Mexicans, who in turn were taught by Cubans. The history of jazz has a few surprising contributions from Mexico.
The other part of the tradition of the Dia de los Reyes has to do with children and helium balloons. Traditionally, Santa Claus had no place in Mexico. Due to the exploding domination of Western culture through the media, Santa Claus has been introduced to Oaxacan children relatively recently. However, in previous days, children didn’t receive gifts on Christmas. They got them on the Day of the Kings. There are special helium balloons with images of the kings on one side and some children’s character on the other (my daughter’s balloon had Elmo on it). When you buy the balloon you get a piece of paper for your child to write a wish list to the kings. The kids release the balloons in the sky with the note—thereby helping to kill off even more oceanic life—and the next day their parents, oops I mean the Kings, leave gifts on their shoes.
Going backwards from The Day of the Kings, we celebrated the New Year with Oaxacan/Latin American/Spanish traditions. After an impromptu Kwanzaa celebration (Kuumba—creativity), we waited for midnight, then stuffed ourselves with 12 grapes in the space of a minute—you get one wish for every grape you eat. Then we lit sparklers and went outside with our suitcases to cement our chances for good journeys in the coming year. As we were celebrating loudly in the street, revelers from a patio party across the street noticed us. Before we knew it, a woman came out from the party with her suitcase and met us in the road. She was like a delegate from another town, traveling to wish us well. All nine of us exchanged hugs with the friendly stranger and wished each other Felicidades.
At Christmas time, in addition to celebrating Jesus, Oaxcans have the Radish Festival. Now, I had heard of the Radish Festival before coming to Oaxaca, but I did not believe it was real. I was watching this cartoon based on wrestlers from the Mexican Lucha Libre (free fight) “league.” The particular episode I was watching showed a radish festival—people were eating radishes, they made sculptures from radishes and had radish contests. I thought it was something wildly imaginative that sprung from the heads of the cartoon’s creators.
Imagine my surprise when I started to hear of December 23 as La Noche de las Rabanas (The Night of the Radishes). We stood in an unimaginably long line (about 4 blocks long) to see radish sculptures! The exhibition also featured flower creations and corn husk sculptures, but by far the most popular sculptures were the radish sculptures. One of the breathtaking sculptures was a four foot tall sculpture of the Virgin of Guadeloupe made completely out of radishes. The artist had helpers who periodically sprayed the sculpture to keep it moist and lovely. Other artists went miniature by recreating small scale versions of common Oaxaca scenes. We saw street parties, churches, folk tale characters and mescal farms recreated. It was amazing. [Nina Simone just mentioned New Orleans again, singing that she met “Mr. Bojangles” in the Big Easy.]
A few nights before that, we were given the surprise opportunity to give Jesus his just due. We had gone to dinner with friends and when we came out of the restaurant there were musicians in the street and people walking with sparklers in their hands. “Oh, it’s a posada,” my friends said, “let’s join in.” So we joined in and wandered the streets (stopping traffic) with the spiritual group that included musicians, a man waving a smoky incense burner on a chain, a little kid dressed as an angel and a little kid dressed as a shepherd, a few women carrying saints, and other members of a church congregation. When the group arrived to their church, they reenacted Joseph and Mary’s pleas to come in and have shelter. This reenactment is done in song. The people outside sing a plea, the people inside shut the doors and sing a refusal to let them in. And the song goes on and on back and forth until finally the doors are flung open and—symbolic of Joseph and Mary finding shelter—everyone is let into the church.
Every church in Oaxaca hosts a posada. In the downtown area there are 25 churches. That means there are a number of posadas going on every night during Christmas time. At my daughter’s day care they hosted a little posada and had three piñatas. These piñatas are especially for the Christmas season and look like colorful, shiny stars.
When the Christmas season was just heating up, coming home one night we found ourselves in the middle of not one, not two, but three street parties. The street parades are called Calendas—they are mounted for weddings; corporate and educational anniversaries; and holidays. Calendas often include huge puppets and large paper covered globes that men usually carry in advance of the parade to announce its arrival. Women are hired to wear traditional dress from one of the seven regions of Oaxaca and carry baskets on their heads with flower-covered symbols or saints. On one street, women in traditional dress were kicking up their heels to a brass band. On the next street a university group were carrying globes, huge puppets and following men dressed in suits covered in colorful strips of cloth. And in the plaza between the two streets, two different groups were lighting toros.
Toros are bulls. These bulls are papier mache and on their horns are these wheels made of strips of bamboo. Attached at intervals on the bamboo wheel, are bundles of explosives. After the wheels are lit, someone dances under the bull in circles while the wheels whirl about with colorful lit firecrackers! Sound a little dangerous? Yes. We watch from afar.
Causing a little more concern are the castillos (castles). These are tall structures that look more like towers than castles. There are multi levels of fireworks. The bottom is lit and carefully arranged firecrackers start popping. Some of them are wheels, some just pop off color. Then as the bottom level is exhausted, the fuse is lit for the next level and so on, until the fireworks reach the top of the castillo. Often a word is spelled out in fireworks and the final moment is when the wheel at the top of the castillo whirls faster and faster as fireworks are sizzling and sparking, until it detaches from the top of the castle and goes flying into the air. Can you say, run for cover?
But, if you do run for cover, you must be aware of your surroundings. If not, you may—like a friend of mine—end up deciding to take shelter in the doorway of a church. Sounds safe, right? But only if strings of fireworks have not been hung from the top of the church so that they can rain down to the ground when lit. Then you might be stuck with fireworks raining down in front of you and you might get holes in your jacket and your shirt and little burns on your arms.
A month before this extravaganza of explosives, we found ourselves in the midst of one of Oaxaca’s biggest celebrations: the Day of the Dead. Day of the Dead is not Halloween. However, just as Santa Claus is making his entry into Mexico, many Mexicans are beginning to mix Halloween with Day of the Dead.
A promotional pamphlet says that Oaxaca’s Day of the Dead celebrations are the result of the syncretism between the cult to the dead of prehispanic Zapotec and Mixtec culture and the Catholic church’s “commemoration of the Faithful Departed.” Despite the fact that the Tourist Commission put out a schedule for the Day of the Dead, Day of the Dead is not a very public holiday.
After finding the scheduled events to be lackluster and not well attended, we realized that the government was trying to create a public holiday where one doesn’t exist. Day of the Dead may be one of the single most important holidays in Oaxaca. It is a personal holiday when the whole city celebrates their ancestors in a personal or family fashion. There are street comparsas (parades) celebrating the dead, but most of the celebration happens in family homes, small communities, and outer villages.
The Day of the Dead pamphlet says:
Each family has its own and different customs in order to celebrate Day of the Dead, some of them praying for their beloved ones, others visiting the cemeteries to decorate the graves that stay unnoticed the rest of the year [as well as] participating and enjoying the altars of the dead which are set in different houses.
Viewing the altars was one of the most beautiful elements of Day of the Dead. Leading up to November 1st and 2nd everyone—hotels, private homes, businesses, schools—sets up amazing altars to honor the dead. At the market, vendors were selling piles and piles of marigolds—the official flower of the dead. Marigolds, it appears, are weeds. The bright gold flowers have a strong, earthy scent and are sold with dirt still clinging to their thick stems.
The marigold—in addition to a wine-colored, fuzzy, wrinkled flower called “velvet” flower—accounted for much of the beauty of the altars. The altars were literally covered with these marigolds. Marigolds were scattered on the table tops, strung on sugar cane arcs behind the altar, and ripped up and strewn on the floor before the altars.
Every Day of the Dead altar was crowned by an arc, most often constructed with two pieces of sugar cane, bent and tied to meet in the middle. According to a pamphlet put out by the Escuela de Bellas Artes, the two pieces of sugar cane represent the centrality and importance of the number 2. Traditionally, the number 2 represents duality: heaven and earth, men and women, days and nights. In Zapotec culture, one was the number of heaven: the eternal and two was the number of the earth: the temporal. Therefore the arc of sugar cane—hung with flowers, fruit, and other decorations—communicate “the desire of those who live on earth to unite with those who inhabit the eternal realm.”
Whether or not most Mexicans remain aware of the traditional significance of every element of the altars, it is clear how fundamentally important celebrating the ancestors are to most Oaxcans. Viewing the altars was a moving experience. In addition to flowers, the altars have photos of departed loved ones, black mole, chocolate, food, fruit, drink, anything the family member may have liked to eat or drink (or smoke).
Day of the Dead altars also have pan de muerto—the bread of the dead. This round loaf of bread is sprinkled with sesame seeds and baked especially for the season of the dead. Each loaf of bread has a face and some are even formed like bodies, rather than a round lump of loaf. Eating the bread is supposed to represent eating your own flesh—embracing death, whenever it should come.
Similarly, altars are also decorated with little skulls made out of sugar or chocolate. It is not unheard of for someone to give you one with your name written over it. When you eat a skull with your name on it you are laughing at and playing with death.
Day of the dead is a dual purpose celebration. It honors the dead, as mandated by the Christian calendar. And it continues the ancient cult of the dead that reveres and embraces death as the other side of life. There is, in fact, a whole branch of the Christian church connected to death. Their icon is a female skeleton. When I asked about the skeleton, one cab driver told me she is death. “I love her, I adore her, I worship her,” he said. A little confused, I asked if he was part of the Christian church. “Yes,” he told me without hesitation or equivocation. “Yes.”
Skeletons and skulls are ubiquitous in the iconography of Mexican arts and crafts, however during Day of Dead there were skeletons EVERYWHERE. The skeletons—like their human counterparts—are captured doing all kinds of things in all kinds of dress. Skeletons dressed as revolutionaries from the Mexican War dance a happy jig, policeman skeletons wave at passerby, a gorgeously hatted female skeleton in a slinky dress kisses a suited male skeleton while behind them a bar full of skeletons gamble with cards. I suppose this means in the afterlife we all continue partaking in human pleasures.
Although we were unsuccessful at getting our Day of the Dead celebration cranking, we did make it to San Felipe where people were gathering in the cemetery to spend the night with their dead. People have a 24 hour window to feed their deceased relatives. By November 1, all should be done. Otherwise the dearly departed won’t get to eat
Outside the cemetery, vendors had set up stalls selling food, flowers, and candles. People were bundled up, babies were wrapped tight and families were ready to stay the night. Most graves had been swept and cleaned and covered in flowers and candles. Plates of food and drink sat balanced on headstones and one group of men were singing to their dead.
The mood in the cemetery varied from jubilant—little children in devil masks trick-or-treating—to somber, a quiet family gathered around the grave of a loved one who had just passed on a few months before. The energy in the cemetery was indescribably and overwhelmingly positive. The cemetery grounds were aglow with candlelight and vibrating with neighbors who had a long history with each other. An ancient tree towers over the center of the cemetery. The busy and devoted bustle of people communicated a warmth and comfort that I and my friends did not want to leave behind. As one of my friends observed—the ceremony just felt so healthy. Witnessing the divine communal act of a whole community mourning and caring for their dead at once was awe-inspiring. Let the circle be unbroken.
There is so much more to tell, but this report has gone on long enough. Suffice to say the stilt walkers with their skeleton masks, the sand sculptures (flat sculpted sand in the form of people, animals or gods), and the village comparsas (groups of men who carry big books and travel first to the cemetery to get the souls of the dead and then roam the town, telling tales of the town’s inhabitants and making social and political commentary) all hold huge gusts of karmic consequence and cultural wealth.
I had my fingers smashed during the Day of the Dead. The driver of a pickup truck managed to slam my fingers in his driver’s door. After my daughter was ushered away, I went howling down the street in search of a doctor. I found myself, though deeply pained, relatively unharmed. No bones were broken. The bruised and bleeding fingernails did not stop me from getting fruit and candles to an infirm neighbor who was almost hysterical at the thought that she wouldn’t get her altar up in time for her deceased loved ones to have some food.
Just as I have no way of knowing whether my one bruised nail and my other completely unattached nail is going to remain with me or fall off, I find it hard to categorize exactly what I’ve gotten out of witnessing the amazing Days of the Dead. In addition to being inspired by this beautiful city’s unequivocal mandate that their ancestors be celebrated, I was personally moved to make an altar for my deceased grandparents. Every time I walked into a friend’s home, I met a new ancestor and heard a new story about an amazing soul who touched someone’s life. It is beautiful to be nudged into maintaining contact with the continuum of human beings whose existence allowed me to be. Let the circle be unbroken.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam