Ancient tradition of celebrating the dead is still alive and well

October 18, 1992|By Bill Begalke | Bill Begalke,Contributing Writer

An opalescent sky muted the harshness of the emerald earth as the old car struggled up the rock-filled Mexican road. Leaving the breeze-blown coast behind, I had begun a journey deep into the verdant mountains of Oaxaca, peaks that faded into the haze, massive blue-gray shapes filled with mystery and little else.

Tires spinning, the taxi flung stones violently against its metal belly. Clanging and banging echoed across the jungle.

The rainy season had just ended, but the steaming humidity trapped by the decaying vegetation turned the car into a mobile sauna.

In my worst nightmare, I had imagined traveling in a bus full of worthy souls, sliding and bouncing down the road on bald tires mounted on springless wheels. That conjured agony made the factual passage no less painful.

Then, suddenly, not a vision, but an actual, enormous bus loomed ahead, approaching my battered car at a fearsome speed. Such an epiphany can lead to serious theological reflection.

What incredible timing, I reflected. It was Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

The gaudy bus, a chrome monstrosity, bore down upon the pathetic tin metal sedan. Nameless faces pressed against the dirty, half-opened coach windows, wide-eyed in anticipation of a cataclysm.

Envision yourself careening up this poor excuse for a highway in a relic of a car, destined for some ominous mountaintop village to witness the Day of the Dead celebration, only to meet a bus -- head on. Such madness made sense in Oaxaca, Mexico. In the lifelong race with death, the strangest journey may be to the cemetery.

At the same time as North Americans celebrate Halloween with costumes and candy, ancient tradition in Mexico calls for family reunions -- with the dead. For three days, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, specific rites are observed faithfully. They occur in the home and in the cemetery amid bouquets of flowers, banquets of bread and ghostly candies ornamented with skull heads.

These candies are called muertos, and are given out much the same as parents dispense candy bars and chewing gum to costumed children demanding trick or treat. But among Mexicans, the dead are considered supernatural guardians. Not only do the dead visit during this time, but they enjoy their favorite food and drink, lavishly laid out on home altars and shrines.

Collecting special treats

In the mountains of Oaxaca, there is a much deeper meaning to the festivities. It begins weeks, perhaps months, before the ordained days with the collecting of the special dishes and treats.

These are the foods and drink the departed spirits loved the most when alive: the best chocolate for mole; fresh eggs and flour for the bread, pan de muerto; fruits and vegetables; even cigarettes and mescal. Lux perpetua votive candles flame day and night, illuminating the decorative wild marigold flowers, flor de muertos, which adorn the altars and the graves.

And everywhere, La Calaca, the skeleton, carved from wood and dressed for a party, watches with amusement.

The passengers on the bus hurtling toward my car were rushing to visit the burial sites of lifeless loved ones. The distinct possibility that they might soon join the dead, in spirit as well as otherwise, accentuated the duality of belief that was being celebrated.

To the Aztecs, in order to reach the Mictlan, or region of the dead, one had to endure a perilous journey. My encounter was proving to be no exception.

Then, in an instant, the bus was gone, rumbling past with nothing to spare, leaving a veil of dust that shrouded my sight through the cracked windshield.

Tradition's warp and weft

My destination was Nopala, a place high in the purple mountains. I was told, of all the villages in Oaxaca, only in Nopala would I truly witness the warp and weft of centuries of tradition, with colonial, religious and ancient Indian beliefs blending into one colorful weaving.

Earlier, the legend of the wall map in the tourist office showed Highway 131 an all-weather, improved surface that snaked through San Pedro and San Gabriel Mixtepec on its way to Oaxaca City. What followed on the map was a large vacant stretch where the village of Nopala should be.

Leaving the outskirts of Puerto Escondido, the improved surface had turned to a dusty, rock-strewn road. Barely wide enough for one vehicle, it wound up the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains to the legendary capital.

At the tiny pueblo of San Gabriel Mixtepec, a red dirt side road set off twisting and climbing to the mountaintop that is Nopala. I took the turn with the faith that the map was wrong, that the white space was an omission, not reality.

Soon the road reached a crystal river, and houses appeared among great groves of trees. The dirt tracks turned to cobblestones, and led me upward to the center of the village.

Finally, the pinnacle, and the mystery that is the Day of Dead became, paradoxically, alive.

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