Never one to disappoint, our buddy Miguel promised a whirlwind tour of the best cemeteries in Oaxaca for the Día de los Muertos celebration. He and his girlfriend Lety scooped us up from the city at 8 p.m. and we ate some sort of delicious sugared squash on our way out of town. After Miguel crammed his Volkswagen into a parking spot a few blocks away from the Panteón Principal in Xoxocotlán, we meandered past the tour buses lining the narrow roads and pushed past the hordes of people jamming their way into the main gate of the cemetery. Once inside, we found thousands of candles, marigolds, lilies and cockscombs covering graves in elaborate patterns. Vendors sold cotton candy, potato chips and tacos while roving bands of musicians provided music for the celebration.
Feeling like a couple of ghoulish interlopers, Rad and I stepped gingerly around the burial plots and spoke in hushed tones to family members who had gathered at the graves to spend the night with relatives and friends. I brought my fast lens because I knew that we would be in a low light situation, but Miguel and Lety assured me that using the flash was completely acceptable. I was a little apprehensive because I was just some other asshole from the United States with a digital SLR hanging around my neck, but I loosened up a bit after our friends implored me the take more photos. There seemed to be little uniformity to the layout of the cemetery and we often found ourselves cornered and had to make a U-turn back through the throngs of ogling tourists.
The vast majority of people that attended the celebration were respectful, but as with any event that draws large numbers of visitors, we saw plenty of folks who believed that October 31 was an absolute free-for-all. People trampled the meticulous flower arrangements, climbed over tombs to circumvent the crowded paths and lost tourists frantically yelled, “Where is our guide?!” At one point we had to pick up an inebriated man from the top of a burial mound and attempt to resurrect the candles he had toppled. After a while, we were glad to escape the multitude of people and walk over to the older cemetery a few blocks away.
It was around midnight when we wandered into the timeworn cemetery. On one side stood a couple crumbling walls and the main archway of a cathedral built in 1629 that was propped up with a framework of logs. Many of the people buried here perished well over a century ago, and some of the aging above-ground tombs were cracked, exposing the interior. I didn’t peek inside. A film crew was making a documentary and had several lights set up, while other people posed for photos in various parts of the old graveyard. We decided that this place was best photographed during the day and decided to return later. After a quick stop for some tamales and coffee, we drove over to the third and final leg of the tour in Atzompa.
Music thundered from a raised stage that was set up at the edge of the graveyard. Meter-long candles lit up the surrounding area as people milled about and a few folks curled up on the ground to sleep until daylight. As we snaked our through the graveyard, a group of young drunkards from the US were shouting, “Mezcal!” from a few rows over. I looked up to see a half-dozen people guzzling mezcal and posing with a family for a group photo. We tried our best to keep a good distance from our boorish countrymen to avoid being mistaken for friends of theirs.
The next evening, we headed out to San Agustín Etla for the town’s famous comparsa called the Muerteada. After searching for a place to stash Miguel’s car, we hiked uphill to the center of the city and found thousands of people clogging the zócalo and surrounding area. We decided to sidestep the crowd and pick up the parade at its source further uphill. After finding a location with a good vantage point, Miguel and I readied our cameras. As the sound of the band got closer, a tall man from the United States thrust Rad and I aside and muscled his way to the front with his digital SLR. I decided that the photos were certainly not worth a shoving match. I shut off my camera, shoved it back into my bag and stood on my toes to try and catch a glimpse of the gaudy and grotesque costumes of the people passing by.
Just as I was about to give up on photography for the night, we went back down into the zócalo where members of the Muerteada were drinking alcohol and posing for photos. I managed to get a few photos before the band kicked back up and the convoy marched down the road to another location. We descended back down the hill, hopped in Miguel’s Volkswagen and headed home for the night.
On the final night of the festival, we headed to Miguel’s house and feasted on an endless supply of tamales. Half were stuffed with beans and hoja de santa and the other half were filled with mole negro con pollo. After stuffing our faces, we all sat outside under the trees with Miguel’s extended family and drank mezcal from tiny green mugs. We traded stories back and forth, Rad learned a few more words of Mixtec from Miguel’s dad and his mother sent us home with a small bucket filled with mole, pan de muertos and chocolate. As we rode back over the top of the Cerro del Fortín overlooking the city, I gazed at the lights of Oaxaca feeling exhausted and extremely fortunate to have friends who were willing to share the festival with us and to be living in Mexico for the next ten months.