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As my grandchildren finished their trick or treating up in el norte, I put the final touches on my Día de los Muertos ofrenda (offering) here in Oaxaca.

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A yellow (the color of death in pre-hispanic southern Mexico) cloth covers two chests; papel picado (cut tissue paper), signifying the union between life and death, has been added, along with the traditional flowers of Day of the Dead — cempasúchil and veruche (domesticated and wild marigolds), their scent to guide the spirits, and cockscomb to symbolize mourning.  Visitors brought the sunflower and, since my grandfather, father, and father-in-law were avid gardeners, it is for them!

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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.

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The sweet smell of copal incense and its smoke help guide my loved ones to the feast I have prepared.  And, there is water to quench their thirst, as they travel between worlds, not to mention mezcal and cervesa (beer).

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But, most important of all, there are the tangible remembrances of my departed — photos and some of their favorite things.

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Revolutionary catrina and catrin for my revolutionary comadre and compadre, Sylvia and Nat.

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Yarn and a crochet hook for my dear grandmother who many of the abuelas (grandmothers) in Oaxaca remind me of — always wearing an apron, never wearing pants, and incredibly adept with crochet and embroidery thread.  And, for my adored grandfather, a San Francisco Giants baseball cap.  My grandparents moved next door at the same time the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco and grandpa and I listened to many games together on his transistor radio, as I helped him in the garden.

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There are other cherished friends and relatives on my altar, but pride of place goes to my parents.  For my father, who was killed when I was only two and a half, there is beer (below the above photo) — alas Victoria not Burgermeister!  And for my mother, a fan to cool herself as she dances and a bottle of port to sip before she sleeps.

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It’s been a two-day labor of love as I wanted everything to be perfect for my difutos (departed) to find their way and feel welcome in my Oaxaca home.

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When Día de Muertos approaches, the panaderías (bakeries) work overtime to fill their shelves and counters with Pan de Muertos — an egg based bread, sometimes elaborately decorated, but always with a cabecita (also known as a muñeca), a little painted flour dough head, at the top.

 

The most intricately decorated bread comes from Mitla.  For a few years, Mitla held a Pan de Muertos fair and competition, with prizes for decoration.  Alas, because their bread is in such demand, the feria was halted two years ago as the bakers put a priority on attending to their customers needs — this is their livelihood, after all!

 

However, the small pueblo, Villa Díaz Ordaz picked up the slack and last year began holding a Festival del Pan de Muertos.  The village is off the beaten path and the festival hasn’t yet drawn much in the way of tourism, but it’s a wonderful event that blogger buddy Chris and I love attending (See his post, here).  Among other things, the event is encouraging and passing along to the younger generation knowledge and pride in the traditions and skills of their community.   And, in my book, that is a good thing!

 

Oaxaca city has also gotten into the Pan de Muertos promotion act.  A 6-day Feria del Pan y el Chocolate was held at the Jardín Carbajal.  One could talk to knowledgeable vendors eager to share their passion, buy bread and chocolate to take home, or just take break from the busyness of this time of year, to sit in the shade of the umbrellas dipping the pan into hot chocolate.  Yummm…

 

Why all this bread?  To place on one’s own ofrenda and to take to the ofrendas of relatives and extended family — its essence to nourish the difuntos (departed) when they come for their annual visit.

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Pan de Muertos on the altar of the chapel in the panteón in Teotitlán del Valle – November 1, 2017

It is a time of year when the difuntos also nourish the souls of the living.

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After the wretched week that was (RIP Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell, not to mention the USA elections), reviewing my Día de Muerto photos from Teotitlán del Valle was the ideal tonic.

On November 1, as I previously mentioned, after strolling and sitting and contemplating and conversing our way through the panteón in Tlacolula de Matamoros, we drove to the home of friends, Zacarias Ruiz and Emilia Gonzalez, in Teotitlán.  Arriving at 3:00 PM, we were just in time to join the family and other guests, as Zac gave words of welcome to the difuntos, who had also just made their appearance.

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Our pan de muerto and mezcal joined the other offerings on the altar to provide nourishment to the departed while we, the living, sat down at the long table for a little cervesa, mezcal, and more than a few of the 500+ tamales Emilia had made.  After lots of eating and conversation, we walked across the courtyard to give our regards to Antonio Ruiz (weaver of one of my treasured rugs), wife Claudia, and their children (the beautiful Beatriz and her lively brothers, Diego and Antonito), and to see Antonio’s new showroom (Chris has a photo in his Familia blog post) and their altar.

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Invited to return to the Ruiz home the following day for Emilia’s famous mole negro, we also stopped at the village panteón to listen for the wind that signals the departure of the difuntos at 3:00 PM on November 2.

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We also stopped to pay our respects at the grave of Arnulfo Mendoza, though it took a little searching to find it, as the large tree that stood next to it had fallen, leaving only a stump.

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Both days, the drive back to the city was filled with the warmth, peace, and joy that Teotitlán del Valle always seems to impart.

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Under the strong and comforting gaze of Picacho, who could ask for a better resting place.

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Poco a poco (little by little) my ofrenda has been constructed and composed.  A yellow (the color of death in prehispanic southern Mexico) cloth covers two chests and papel picado, signifying the union between life and death, has been added.

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Photos of departed loved ones have been placed, along with apples, oranges, and nuts to nourish the difuntos, sal to make sure the souls stay pure, cempasúchitl and veruche (domesticated and wild marigolds) — their scent to guide the spirits, cockscomb to symbolize mourning, the previously mentioned flor de muerto from the mountains above Díaz Ordaz, and copal incense to draw the spirits home and ward off evil.

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Sugar skulls, catrinas, and a few of the favorite things of my parents, grandparents, and in-laws have also been added.  Lest the spirits become thirsty, there is water, mezcal, cervesa, and a bottle of port (for my mom) to drink.

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Last night, the candles and copal incense were lit to guide my loved ones to my Oaxaca home and, just to make sure, I sprinkled some cempasúchitl petals outside to help them find their way.

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It may not be the house where they lived, but I’m hoping they too believe, When you live in your heart, you are always home.

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Visits to mercados in the city and Tlacolula have been made.  Along with mandarinas and manzanas, cempasuchil and cresta de gallo have been purchased.

Women selling marigolds and cockscomb

Pan de muerto has been selected…

Pan de muertos

A calaverita has been chosen…

Sugar skulls

Mezcal and water have been poured, dishes of chocolate and salt prepared, candles brought out, and photos of departed family and friends and a few of their favorite things have been collected.  Yesterday, it was time to prepare my ofrenda.

My muertos altar

As dusk descended, friends gathered; the candles and copal were lit…

Close up of my muertos altar

And we offered our silent — and sometimes not so silent — prayers to the baseball spirits to bring victory to the San Francisco Giants in game 7 of the World Series.

San Francisco Giants' cap and photo of my grandparents

The spirits listened!!!  Thinking of you, grandpa….

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Los disfuntos (the departed) are returning in less than a week.  I’m sorting through photos for a friend who is giving a presentation at the Oaxaca Lending Library, on Día de los Muertos in Teotitlán del Valle, and realized I never got around to posting these…

Bells of  Templo de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo ringing over the village.

Bells of Templo de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo ring over the village during Muertos.

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Chanting in the chapel of the panteón in Teotitlán del Valle.

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Food for the departed.

Serenading the departed.

Serenading the departed in the panteón.

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Descansa en paz / rest in peace.

Home altar with loaves of pan de muerto

Home altar with loaves of pan de muerto.

Bowl of black mole

Mole negro, 2 de noviembre, at the home of a friend in Teotitlán del Valle.

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An ofrenda is an offering, an integral part of the Day(s) of the Dead celebration, filled with meaning, a beacon to the departed, an ephemeral work of art, and the sum of its lovingly chosen parts.  And so, last night my aforementioned BFF and I constructed our ofrenda.

Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca… so much to show and share with those we love.

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My BFF (since age 12 — I won’t say how many decades ago that was) arrived last night from Alaska.  It was her first trip to Mexico and it took 22 hours.  Of course we talked late into the night, thus the morning unfolded slowly.

However, eventually we emerged into the hustle and bustle of the temporary muertos stalls near 20 de Noviembre mercado, to begin purchasing the elements for our Día de los Muertos ofrenda:  Apples, oranges, and nuts to nourish the spirits, cempasuchitl (marigolds) to guide the spirits, cockscomb to symbolize mourning, and copal incense to draw the spirits home and ward off evil .

Muertos Altar

As you can see from the above chart, we have much more to buy and bring out of the storage closet.  And, the above list doesn’t even mention sugar cane stalks!

h/t Chef Pilar Cabrera for posting the chart on Facebook.

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Last night we went to my favorite panteon (cemetery) at Atzompa, today we visited six villages, and tonight I went with out-of-town guests to the Panteon General here in Oaxaca.   First thing tomorrow morning a comparsa (parade) and then probably off to Teotitlán del Valle.  I’ve already taken hundreds and hundreds of photos, but there has been no time to even look at them!

So, in the meantime…  My pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread) from Sunday’s trip to Tlacolula.

Four small loaves of decorated bread

Very special pan de muerto from Restaurante La Abeja just a few blocks from Casita Colibrí.  This one will eventually get two coats of shellac and join her sister (purchased last year) hanging on the wall.

Bread in the shape of the profile of a woman's face

Last, but not least, my altar where photos of departed family and friends join apples, tangerines, pan de muerto, sugar skulls, candles, and incense of copal.

Day of Dead home altar with fruit, candles, bread, calaveras, sugar skulls, etc.

This is a magical time to be in Oaxaca.

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Sunday, blogger buddy Chris and I drove out to Tlacolula for market day.  It didn’t take long to realize this wasn’t your usual Sunday market — there seemed to be twice the number vendors and twice as many shoppers.  It was the Sunday before the Días de los Muertos and this mega mercado was providing those who live in the surrounding area with everything they could possible need for their ofrendas (Day of the Dead altars).

Mounds of apples, tangerines, and other fruit.

mounds of bananas and tangerines

Rows upon rows of pan de muerto (the special Day of the Dead bread).

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Wheelbarrows full of peanuts and pecans.

Wheelbarrow full of nuts

And, in the city of Oaxaca, special Muertos vendor stalls have been set up between the Benito Juárez Mercado and 5 de Mayo Mercado for city dwellers to stock up.  Intricately decorated sugar and chocolate skulls (calaveras) to satisfy the sweet tooth of Mictlantecuhtli (Goddess of Death).

Shelves of sweet calaveras

Decorated clay incense burners…

Clay three-legged incense burners

waited to burn copal resin and perfume the air with its wonderful, and now familiar, scent.

Bags and piles of copal resin

Doll house size tables were filled with miniature clay food and beverages (favorites of the departed) …

Tiny tables with miniature clay foods and beverages

and included these diminutive plates of mole and arroz (rice) — which I couldn’t resist buying for my altar!

Tiny plates of ceramic mole and arroz

And, of course, there were mounds and mounds of Cempazuchitl (marigolds), the flower of the dead, that grows wild in Oaxaca at this time of year.

Pile of marigolds

All the necessary purchases have been made, now to build my ofrenda.

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Pan de muerto is the traditional Days of the Dead sweet yeast bread.  It is decorated and placed on ofrendas (altars), along with candles, flowers, fruit, pictures, mementos, other foodstuffs, and beverages, as offerings to the departed.

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The intricately decorated pan de muerto are from the Tlacolula Valley, and reference the geometric designs and mosaic fretwork found in the archeological sites in and around Mitla, a photo of which I’m using as browser background on this blog.

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November has come and now is almost gone. Time accelerated.  Where did it go?  Retired life… I thought it would slow down… apparently not when one lives in Oaxaca. There’s too much to see and experience!

Los Días de Muertos

The month began with Los Días de Muertos. I signed-up to accompany my extraordinarily energetic Spanish teacher, Laura Olachea, on two “field trips.” About 30 of us (her students and their guests) boarded a bus the night of Oct. 31, bound for the old and new cemeteries of Xoxocotlán. Tens of thousands of tourists (overwhelmingly Mexican) seemed to have descended on this small village, the bus was forced to park 8-10 blocks away on a dirt side street, the sky was pitch black, and there were no street lights. Somehow, we all managed to keep up with our tiny maestra as she lead us through the crush of people and vendors (food, drink, sugar skulls, candles, you name it!) to the old cemetery.

Panteón de Xoxocotlán 2010

I plunged in. Heeding Laura’s advice to travel in groups of 3-4, I tagged along with a couple, chosen because he was at least 6 feet tall and I figured he would be easy to keep in eye range. The scene was like nothing I’ve ever seen before… a cornucopia of candles, by the thousands, flickering in the darkness; of color from the marigolds, cockscomb, and lilies; and of hundreds of families gathered around lopsided graves, drinking, sitting, laughing, and sharing in a ritual that recognizes that death is part of life. The scene was repeated at the new cemetery, before we stumbled our way back to the bus, which spirited us to the tiny pottery village of Atzompa and its panteón, well after midnight: Stage and dance floor, band playing, couples dancing, flowers, candles glowing in the darkness, families, few tourists, deeply personal, and magical… I felt like an intruder.

Panteón de Atzompa 2010

Though it was close to 1:30 AM when the bus dropped me off a block and a half from Casita Colibrí, I was up and back on the bus at 10 AM, for the ride to Mitla with Laura and our gang. We had the privilege of being guests of the García family, invited to participate in their Zapotec Day of the Dead traditions. We were welcomed to their home, a traditional family compound, with rooms surrounding an enormous dirt courtyard, with clotheslines holding newly dyed skeins of yarn (this is a family of weavers). Cervesas were offered, and then, in accordance with age-old custom, we followed the recently widowed family matriarch through the dusty streets to the Panteón Municipal. Here, holding the three-legged incense burner, the sweet and seductive smell of the burning copal perfuming the air, Doña Garcia performed a ceremony with words spoken in Zapotec.

Doña Garcia with copal burner

Mezcal and cigarettes were passed around. Joining the others, I drank the Mezcal and deposited my cigarette on the grave of the departed, where it joined several others — smoked and, like mine, un-smoked. With fireworks erupting periodically, we retraced our steps, following Doña Garcia and the smoke of the copal, as she brought the spirit of her late husband, Rutilio Garcia, back home to share the day with his family.

We returned to the lovingly assembled altar set-up by Doña Garcia. It was here, in front of this colorful altar, laden with flowers and food, including the intricately decorated pan de muertos that echoes the designs of the archeological ruins in Mitla, words were spoken in Zapotec and Spanish and tears traveled down many cheeks. Following this extremely moving ceremony, chairs were set up around several long tables where we joined the family in drinking Oaxacan hot chocolate, feasting on pan de muertos and mole negro, served, of course, with tortillas.

Satiated, it was probably a good thing that we were then led on a walking tour through this City of the Dead, to visit several other altars. Gracious families ushered our group through courtyards. At one, we paused to marvel at a woman, standing over an open fire (on this 80+ degree day), stirring a massive cauldron of mole,

Woman stirring cauldron of mole.

We gathered in modest homes where families “introduced” their departed and proudly explained the significance of items on their altars. Hot, exhausted and deeply moved, a much quieter crowd returned to the García home. We were offered a final shot of mezcal, said our heartfelt thank-yous, and boarded the bus for the trip back to the city.

I returned home in time to watch my San Francisco Giants win their first World Series crown since 1954, when they were the New York Giants. After my initial hurrahs, my head couldn’t help but turn from the TV to my small Day of the Dead altar; where, along with photos of my parents, mother and father-in-law, and departed friends, my eyes settled in the center of the altar, to a photo of my grandparents.

They had moved next door to my childhood home in Mill Valley about the same time the Giants moved to San Francisco, and it was then that Grandpa introduced me to baseball. We listened to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons call the games and I put up a team photo (Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Felipe Alou, Stu Miller, Mike McCormick, Jose Pagan, Jimmy Davenport, Hobie Landrith…) on the wall of my bedroom; grandfather and granddaughter cheering, agonizing, and bonding. I took my Giants cap off, walked over, and put it on the altar.

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