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In Oaxaca for Day of the Dead

Trace the steps of one photographer as he celebrates the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Published 2 Nov 2017, 12:00 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:46 GMT

The dead are never far away in Oaxaca — the locals believe they're just around the corner in Mictlan, the underworld of Aztec myth. Once a year, a lively food- and dance-filled celebration spills out from the cemeteries to greet the returning spirits. 

Preparations get underway at Casa de Las Bugambilias, a boutique hotel in Oaxaca City, on the eve of the Dia de Los Muertos holiday to welcome back the dead. Mariana Arroyo picks marigolds for the altar; the next day, guests gather together to honour loved ones.

Colourful floral tributes are a key part of Day of the Dead's aesthetic. Ancient peoples believed it was disrespectful to mourn the dead, giving way to a culture of celebration.
Personal altars, or ofrendas, are maintained in many homes, with occupants celebrating the life of a lost loved one.
Ofrendas can often be opulent and intricate, and are tended for the three days of the Dia di los Muertos festival.

A family in the village of San Lorenzo Albarradas tend to their Dia de Los Muertos altar — these are often quite beautiful creations, painstakingly constructed with great attention to detail. Sometimes they include offerings that the departed enjoyed in life.

The cathedral of Oaxaca – construction of which began in 1535 – is a visual hub of the city, and is often the focus of festivities.
Tradition has merged with modern practices when it comes to costume, with many dressed as the Day of the Dead figurehead, La Catrina Calavera, or 'the elegant skull.' Children innovate their own embellishments.

As the week-long festival gathers momentum in Oaxaca City, a comparsa (group of singers and dancers) of devils, skeletons and other underworld characters, snakes out of Panteon General cemetery and into the streets, later joining a children's parade in the city square.

Oxaca's particular connection to the Day of the Dead stems from the preservation in the state of ancient traditions, and the celebration of the departed revisiting the living on the three days of the festival. It is in fact celebrated across Latin America.

The sound of singing and a lone guitar fills the Panteon Nuevo cemetery in the city of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán as family and friends commune with beloved spirits. As the Mexicans say, los cielos se abren ('the heavens open up').

Cemeteries and mausoleums form much of the focus of those observing Day of the Dead, in both traditional – and less traditional – ways.
Vigils held on the eve of Day of the Dead are often located in cemeteries, which are opulently decorated and meticulously tended in tribute to the departed.

Originally published in the November 2016 issue, and updated in 2019.

Day of the Dead


What is the Day of the Dead?

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a celebration of life and death. While the holiday originated in Mexico, it is celebrated all over Latin America with colourful calaveras (skulls) and calacas (skeletons). Learn how the Day of the Dead started and the traditions that make it unique.
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