Oaxaca is one of 31 states along with the autonomous capital, Mexico City, that make up the United States of Mexico. Much of the land that makes up the 32 states continues to be occupied by the descendants of indigenous people who lived there thousands of years before. Though they’re now joined together as the country of Mexico, each state continues to maintain a unique identity; perhaps none more than the state of Oaxaca.
Located along the Pacific Ocean in southeastern Mexico, Oaxaca is made up of rough terrain and numerous mountain ranges, making it historically difficult for tribal groups to travel from village to village. The relative isolation of the inhabitants in different parts of the state created an environment where many different indigenous languages, customs, food, and art have been preserved to this day. One of the best times to observe the rich cultural diversity in Oaxaca is in early November, when Dia de Muertos celebrations are happening around the state.
Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, is a sacred Mexican tradition. It is believed that for a few days every year, the barrier between the living and spiritual world is thin enough to allow the dead to visit their loved ones. Dia de Muertos dates back thousands of years to the ancient Mexican civilizations like the Aztecs, Toltecs and Mexicos. They believed that death was a natural part of the life cycle and mourning the dead was disrespectful. Instead, they were believed to live on as part of the community in spirit.
In Oaxaca, different villages have varied customs and traditions that begin on October 31st and continue through November 2nd. Most people in this part of the country celebrate the occasion in the old way. They start by cleaning and decorating the graves of their loved ones with candles and marigolds (because their strong scent is believed to attract the spirit making the journey back to Earth). On the night of Dia de Muertos, they sit at the gravesite of their departed loved ones, singing, toasting and celebrating them.
Another tradition involves creating beautiful altars, ofrendas, in homes to entice the departed to come as well as to offer sustenance and support for their return journey.
Many towns hold parades in which people decorate their faces with skull paint, perform traditional dances, and joyously celebrate those that have passed away. The local markets carry a delicacy called pan de muerto, a round yolk bread with decorative heads baked into. Another common part of the Day of the Dead tradition in Oaxaca is the creation of sand tapestries, tapetes de arena; whimsical images of skeletons made from sand.
Late October is a wonderful time to observe the unique cultural identities of the various cities and villages in Oaxaca, as the people faithfully carry on ancient customs and traditions that have been passed down through numerous generations.