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In pre-pandemic years, on December 11, the day before Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, little boys, dressed as Juan Diego and little girls (las Malinches) in traditional indigenous traje (costume), waited patiently in long lines with parents and grandparents to enter the Templo de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (at the north end of Llano Park) to be blessed. Once they exited, at least fifteen “Guadalupe grotto” settings, and the photographers who constructed them, competed for pesos for portraits of the children placed in these elaborate stage sets.

This year, no doubt due to the pandemic, when I arrived in the afternoon, the church doors were closed, there were half the “Guadalupe grotto” sets, and almost no children around — despite the carnival rides, games of chance, food stalls, and tchotchke vendors filling the park and beckoning. The little girl in the last photo was the only child I saw being photographed. Click on Guadalupe’s children and The kids are all right for photos of adorable niñas and niños from previous years.

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Tomorrow may be Día de la Virgin de Guadalupe, but she is never far from sight no matter the day or place.

May 25, 2021 – Somewhere between Oaxaca’s airport and Barrio de Jalatlaco.
July 5, 2021 – Convite in Teotitlán del Valle.
January 3, 2021 – Outside the Iglesia de San Matias Jalatlaco.
August 11, 2021 – Along a sidewalk in Oaxaca de Juárez.
December 13, 2020 – Vendor offerings on the sidewalk of the Macedonio Alcalá.

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The evening of October 31, I heard the unmistakable sounds of a procession coming down the street — but not the raucous cacophony of a muerteada which, given the date, I was expecting. No, this was the slow dirge-like and repetitive hymn of a religious procession. Needless to say, I grabbed my camera, keys, and cubreboca (mask) and headed out the door. The Catholic church has dedicated the month of October to honor the Virgin Mary with the recitation of the Holy Rosary. This being the last Sunday of October, María traveled through the streets of Barrio de Jalatlaco through the generous mayordomía (stewardship) of the families Robles Tamayo and García Robles.

Upon her return to Templo de San Matías Jalatlaco, she was greeted by a less than solemn scene of Día de Muertos revelers in costumes and face paint, no doubt looking for a muerteada (aka, comparsa). According to the book, Day of the Dead: When Two Worlds Meet in Oaxaca, the muerteada allows the dead “to ‘occupy’ a living body, either a muerteada participant or an audience member, for a time, and therefore enjoy the entertainment directly rather than vicariously.” I suspect for some, it was just an excuse to party.

However, a muerteada did come to my neighborhood the following night. Again, I grabbed camera, keys, and cubreboca and ventured out to check it out. The craziness was only just getting started and would undoubtedly go on most of the night. Besides, not even half the people were wearing masks, so, after twenty minutes and twenty plus photos, I went home.

The sacred and profane that is Mexico.

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Day of the Dead altars and their offerings to the departed vary from region to region and, within those regions, from family to family. Ofrendas (offerings) are an integral part of Día de Muertos. They are a beacon to the departed, an ephemeral work of art, and the sum of their lovingly chosen parts. As you can see from the photos below from several in Barrio de Jalatlaco, even on public display, they are intensely personal and creative.

Galería Shadai – Flowers, papel picado, candles, incense, pan de muertos, fruit, nuts, a casserole, and beverages.

And, there is a catrina tapete de arena (sand carpet) made of sand, beans, and flowers.

However, the only photo is of Maestro Francisco Toledo placed on a side pedestal.

Los Pilares Hotel and Restaurant – Flowers, papel picado, catrinas and catrins, candles, fruit, pan de muertos, and beverages.

And, there is a beautiful floral arch.

No photos of loved ones, but it’s a love story to the state of Oaxaca.

Family ofrenda – 5 de mayo at the corner of La Alianza. Family photos of the departed take center stage with papel picado, cempasúchitl (marigolds), and skeletons playing supporting roles.

Then there are those magnificent floral candles like one sees in Teotitlán del Valle.

And, lest the departed can’t find their way home in the greatly expanded city, an old photo and skeletons await outside the altar alcove to show the way.

Last but not least, my altar and offerings. It was a creative challenge to set up in the new Casita Colibrí.

It’s smaller than previous years, but I have figured out a way to make it bigger and better next year.

A yellow (color of death in pre-hispanic southern Mexico) tablecloth; papel picado (cut tissue paper) signifying the union between life and death; cempasúchitl (marigolds) and flor de muerto from the Sierra Norte, their scent to guide the spirits; and cresta de gallo (cockscomb) to symbolize mourning. There is salt to make sure the souls stay pure and chocolate, peanuts, pecans, apples, mandarin oranges, and pan de muertos (Day of the Dead bread) to nourish them. The sweet smell of copal incense and its smoke help guide my loved ones to the fiesta I have prepared for them. There is water to quench their thirst, as they travel between worlds, not to mention mezcal and cervesa (beer). And, there are the tangible remembrances of my departed — photos and some of their favorite things.

With candles lit and incense burning, I’m loving it and hoping my very dearly departed will find it warm, nourishing, and welcoming.

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My new neighborhood, Barrio de Jalatlaco, has a long history — one that predates the arrival of the Spanish. Community spirit and traditions are strong, including making her departed feel welcome during Día de Muertos. Thus the bright orange and spicy scent of the flor de muerto, cempasúchitl (flower of the dead, marigolds) are everywhere.

Papel picado, in seasonal colors, ripple above the streets and cast fluttering shadows.

Floral arches welcome the living and the departed.

And skeletons are seen hanging out in doorways, windows, and sidewalks.

Tomorrow, altars and their offerings.

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In Teotitlán del Valle, the fiesta honoring Preciosa Sangre de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo is the most important one of the year. It lasts eight days, includes two convites (processions), several special masses, and (in non Covid years) two fireworks’ displays. However, the highlight for visitors and villagers is the four performances of the Danza de la Pluma by the Grupo de Danza de Pluma Promesa.

El Picacho, the sacred mountain, watches over the village and the dancers.
The choreography includes athletic leaps, twists and turns, and complex footwork.
Maneuvering the penachos/coronas/headdresses as the dancers navigate the step takes strength and timing.

The Danza de la Pluma is a ritual re-enactment of the Spanish conquest.  The full version is told in 41 bailes (dances) and lasts from early afternoon into the night.  It is danced by folkloric groups throughout the valley of Oaxaca. However, in Teotitlán, it is a three year religious commitment. 

Rattles, paddles, and breastplates of old coins are part of the dancers’ costume.
In Teotitlán del Valle, Moctezuma’s penacho features the symbol of Mexico: Eagle and serpent on a cactus.
Moctezuma, accompanied by a Danzante, with Doña Marina and La Malinche

Moctezuma, Danzantes, Subalternos, Malinche, and Doña Marina are selected years in advance and make a promise to their god and, thus, their church and community to learn and perform the dance at each of the four annual major religious festivals in the village and any other special occasion they are called upon to dance.

La Malinche.
The dance divides the historic person of Doña Marina and La Malinche into two characters.
Doña Marina.

A 20+ piece orchestra accompanies the dancers, playing a musical score mostly comprised of waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, quadrilles, and schottisches. The first time I saw the Danza de la Pluma, I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance at the contrast between the costumes and the music. A little research (after all, I’m a librarian) provided the explanation. At the end of the 19th century, when all things European were being celebrated in Mexico, an orchestra playing European music replaced the original indigenous teponaztli (drum) and chirimía (flute).

Subalterno providing a little comic relief.
Wearing their trademark cross between a boar and bear wooden black masks, Subalternos posing for the camera.
Subalterno taking a break from his Aide-de-Camp duties of offering water to the dancers, dealing with wardrobe malfunctions, clearing debris from dance floor, and entertain spectators.

On two of the days the dancers dance for four hours and the other two, they dance for seven hours. The sun can be brutal and the wind can wreak havoc with the penachos. I don’t know how they do it — their stamina is astounding! I only managed to attend a few hours each at three of the performances. However, I will be back in September for the Natividad de la Virgen María fiesta.

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Alas, another silent Viernes Santo in Oaxaca due to the pandemic. No early morning processions from churches throughout the city converging in front of the Cathedral to reenact the encuentro where Jesús meets María going towards Calvary. No worshipers praying and reciting appropriate devotions as they moved from one sidewalk Estación de la Cruz (Station of the Cross) to another. And, no rhythmic beat of a tambor, high-pitched tones of a chirimía, and the sputtering sounds of rachets punctuating the hush of the crowds gathered along the route for the early evening Procesión del Silencio (Procession of Silence).

Only silent sacred vignettes accompanied yesterday morning’s Good Friday walk through Barrio de Jalatlaco…

Unlike last year when church doors remained closed and services were broadcast remotely, the Archbishop announced that this year the churches will be open for liturgical acts on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, albeit with a “limited presence of the faithful.”

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Today, besides being Groundhog Day, it is the Christian holy day, Día de la Candelaria (aka, Candlemas, Presentation of Jesus at/in the Temple, and Feast of the Purification of the Virgin). In Mexico, tradition calls for families to bring their Niño Dios (baby Jesus), decked out in new clothes, to the church to be blessed. Alas, in the time of Covid-19, the Servicios de Salud de Oaxaca (health department) has called upon Oaxaqueños not to gather this year and, while the doors of the Cathedral will be open, the faithful are asked to stay home if their Niño Dios was blessed in previous years.

Tamales from Levadura de Olla Restaurante: Tamal Adobo, Tamal Chile Ajo, Tamal Mole Negro, Chancleta Guajolote, and Tamal de Fiesta (not in order)

Custom also calls for the person who bit into the baby Jesus figurine hidden in the Rosca de Reyes (3 Kings Cake) during Día de los Reyes Magos to host a tamalada on Candelaria. As I write, tamales are steaming all over the state. The virus will not stop the cocineras of Oaxaca from rising before the crack of dawn to make and serve tamales. As I previously mentioned, I munched down on a figurine. And I wasn’t the only one — my neighbor and friend Kalisa also had the “pleasure.” I must confess, we took the easy way out and pre-ordered our tamales from Levadura de Olla Restaurante. I can’t wait to eat them!

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It is a mostly quiet feast day for Oaxaca’s patron saint, La Virgen de la Soledad (the Virgin of Solitude). If you have ever been to Oaxaca you probably visited her at the Basilica built in her honor and seen images of this Reina y Patrona de Oaxaca (Queen and Patroness of Oaxaca) for sale, carried in religious processions, and tucked into niches.

Virgen de la Soledad clay sculpture by Irma García Blanco* in Barrio de Xochimilco

In non Covid-19 times, she is celebrated with anything but solitude. A cacophony of chiming bells, brass bands, crackles, pops, bangs, and whistles from fireworks, toritos, and a castillo fill the air (and severely limit sleep) in the days and nights leading up to December 18. And the aroma of Oaxaca street food from stalls set up to feed the pilgrims who often spend the night of December 17, permeates the neighborhood.

Image of the mule who refused to move located in the garden behind the Basilica de la Soledad

Since her unceremonious arrival 400 years ago on a mule who laid his burden down and refused to get back up, “In critical moments, such as earthquakes, epidemics, droughts, conflicts, social upheaval and others, she has been with us, to give us her company. Not only on her feast day, but almost every day they come to give thanks to Our Lady for continued life and good health.” — Nicolás Ramírez García, Rector de la Basílica Menor. (My translation)

Virgen de la Soledad sculpture in a niche near Jardín Conzatti

This year she has not processed through the city but instead remains behind the closed doors of her home in the Basilica de la Soledad. In order to keep her people safe from the virus, today her bejeweled figure does not preside over open air mass in the church atrium, the faithful are not able to line up to pray before her, light candles, and touch her mantle with bouquets of flowers and traditional herbs. Worshippers have been urged to maintain the faith from their homes and pray in front of their own images of La Virgen.

My Virgen de la Soledad clay sculpture by Irma García Blanco*

The Virgin of Solitude has been my neighbor for more than eleven years and I mourn the unnatural quiet, but look forward to next year — no doubt a celebration magnified in gratitude for surviving the pandemic.

*Irma García Blanco is one of the Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular de Oaxaca and is the daughter of Oaxaca’s grand matriarch of decorative pottery, Teodora Blanco Nuñez.

Update: While the doors were closed, based on photos in this article, apparently a limited number of worshippers were allowed into the Basilica for the mass celebrated by the archbishop.

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Today, Mexico celebrates the Queen of Mexico, Empress of America, and patron saint of Mexico — Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe. Alas, due to Covid-19, all is quiet on the western front.

Calle Garcia Vigil, Oaxaca de Juárez under the arquitos – May 24, 2020.
Somewhere in Barrio de Xochimilco, Oaxaca de Juárez — March 22, 2020.
Calle Netzahualcóyotl at Niños Heroes, Oaxaca de Juárez — November 15, 2020.
Calle de la Constitución, Oaxaca de Juárez – September 27, 2020.

However, no matter the day, Guadalupe is always present on the streets of Oaxaca. But, for goodness sake, please don’t leave her your garbage!

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Save for yesterday’s 5:00 AM jarring explosion of cohetes (rockets — all bang, no bling) and clanging church bells coming from the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad heralding the start of the celebrations for the Virgen de Juquila, the last thirty-two hours have been mostly muted, with only the occasional chiming bells and bursting cohetes — very quiet by Oaxaca standards.

Virgen de Juquila mural in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, Oaxaca — seen in 2013.
Procession honoring the Virgen de Juquila in front of the Cathedral in Oaxaca city — seen December 8, 2018.
Parish of Santo Tomás Xochimilco chapel to the Virgen de Juquila in Oaxaca city closed, by order dated March 17, 2020, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 — seen May 24, 2020.

Due to Covid-19 concerns, in consultation with Oaxaca’s health department, the archbishop of Oaxaca cancelled holy processions through the streets and called upon the faithful to forego pilgrimmages. This is especially sad for Santa Catarina Juquila, where Juquila’s shrine is located, as just last week it was announced the town had been designated a Mexican Pueblo Mágico. The archbishop also ordered churches closed, with masses to be celebrated and broadcast from behind locked doors during December’s festivities honoring the Virgen de Juquila (December 8), the Virgen de Guadalupe (December 12), and the Virgen de La Soledad (December 18).

Now if only other people and places would take this pandemic as seriously.

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Living and being in Oaxaca during the Días de los Muertos is hard to put into words. There is so much to experience and to think about. It is the ofrendas that touch me the most — they are all so personal, even those on display to the public. And, one of the unexpected delights of tracking down the chairs of the Silla Calavera project, was to see the Day of the Dead ofrendas constructed by the hotels and restaurants also displaying the chairs.

Casa Antica, Av. José María Morelos.
Plaza Las Vírgenes, Calle Labastida. Only very occasionally do fires break out!
Utilitario Mexicano, Mariano Matamoros.
La Casa de las Artesanías, Mariano Matamoros.
Hotel Casa Garay, Calle Miguel Cabrera.
On the Zócalo, ofrenda for Tomás Martínez, a leader of the Frente Popular Revolucionario.
La Mano Mágica, Calle Macedonio Alcalá. Photo of Arnulfo Mendoza on the top right. I can’t believe it’s been 6-1/2 years since his passing.
Hotel Trébol, Ricardo Flores Magón.
Hotel Casa Vertiz, Calle Reforma.
Hotel Marqués Del Valle, bordering the Zócalo.
Jardín Sócrates neveria next to Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Soledad.

Sensory overload challenges the limits of heart and mind and, especially this year, my emotions ran the gamut from extreme exhilaration to quiet joy to being moved to tears.

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Since early this morning, rocket explosions, up close and in the distance, have been breaking the Sunday silence. That’s odd, I thought. While in normal times, the jarring sound of cohetes is a frequent player in the soundtrack of life in Oaxaca, these days, like clanging church bells, their booms and bangs have been absent from the orchestra. So, why today? I wondered. It wasn’t until I downloaded this photo from this morning’s walk, that it dawned on me.

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Looking south from Panorámica del Fortín, Oaxaca de Juárez

May 3rd in Mexico is Día de la Santa Cruz (Day of the Holy Cross) and Día del Abañil (Day of the mason/stonemason/bricklayer). Tradition calls for construction workers to erect crosses festooned with flowers at the highest point on building sites — but construction in Oaxaca, in this time of Covid-19, has been at a standstill for several weeks. I guess the building trades’ workers aren’t going to let a lethal virus interfere with their “macho rivalry” tradition. From an article in Mexconnect:

The first dramatic volley of thousands of joyful cohetes (sky rockets) begins at midnight as each crew attempts to be the first to announce the celebration of the Day of the Holy Cross. This macho rivalry between workers continues sporadically all night and for the entire 24 hours of May 3 with each crew hoping to set off more sky rockets than their competitors to remind one and all that this is a special day.

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The sights and sounds of Good Friday in Oaxaca have gone missing. Weeks ago, the archbishop canceled all public Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations. Jesús, María, San Pedro, Penitents, religious banners, and devotees are not processing through the streets to the rhythmic beat of a tambor, high-pitched tones of a chirimía, and the sputtering sounds of a rachet. While not religious, I miss it and this year last year’s photos will have to suffice.

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The streets are empty, as Viernes Santo has gone silent.

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It’s Domingo de Ramos and in pre-COVID-19 times, from my terrace I would hear an outdoor morning mass being said in the atrium of the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. And then, for the past eight years, blogger buddy Chris and I would drive to San Antonino Castillo Velasco for one of the most magical days of the year. However, all was silent this Palm Sunday. So, donning my mask, I went for early Sunday morning walk with my neighbor K. Lonely and poignant scenes met us everywhere our wanderings took us.

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Lonely palm fronds in window of Hospital Ángel Vasconcelos on Av. José María Morelos

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Doors of Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción were shuttered.

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The doors of Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán were open, but nary a soul was in sight.

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A mass was being said at Templo de San Matías Jalatlaco, but the doors were shut tight.

However, no sight we saw this morning was as moving as this one posted to the San Antonino Castillo Velasco Facebook page.

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San Salvador bereft of his usual bounty stands alone in the atrium of the church in San Antonino Castillo Velasco.

To see San Salvador in his usual Domingo de Ramos splendor and the village procession that takes him, laden with donated fruits, vegetables, herbs, and bread, from the panteón to the church, click HERE.

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