Report # 6: Muertos

            About the 10th of October —Linda and I are in Kingston, attending to the house and making the rounds of doctors— we get an email from Jim Austin: would we like to contribute to the Muertos celebration? Jim and Kathy are hosting the celebration this year for both San Pablo Etla (3rd section) and Santa Cruz Etla. I recall Kathy telling me that they had hosted the party for over a dozen years at their organic farm, that it requires an incredible amount of work, and that this year would be her final one. Then, a little shame faced, she confessed that she said the same thing last year. Over the last dozen years somehow it has become a tradition for the Etlas’ small expat community to host the party for San Pablo and Santa Cruz, which makes contributing a civic duty.

            “Sure,” I email back. “What’s the traditional range of the ante?”

            “300 to 2,000 pesos,” appears on my screen.

            “Put us down for 500,” I type back, “payable on our arrival back in Oaxaca, and assign us any tasks that our unskilled labor will not botch up.”


            Back in Oaxaca we get the Muertos schedule from Jim. On Friday the 31st at 9:00 we are to report to the Austin-Overholt farm with our garden clippers to help make the flower bouquets that will dress the communal altar and the arch over the entryway to the farm. Evidently thousands of them are required. On Saturday, Nov. 1, at 8:00 in the evening, the comparsa of San Pablo Tercera Sección will appear at the farm. On Sunday, at 4:00, the Santa Cruz comparsa will perform. Sunday’s is a command performance for us, not only because we live in Santa Cruz, but also because Lalo, our contractor, is the organizer of the Santa Cruz comparsa this year, and several of our workers will be dancing or playing in the band. Lalo tells us that they’ve been rehearsing for lo these many .... well, they’ve met once or twice, anyway. The same group has been performing the comparsa for years, and it is not all that tightly scripted.


            Muertos, the Day of the Dead, November 1, in much of the Christian world is All Saints Day, with the previous night being All Hallows Eve. In Mexico Muertos is a really big deal, probably the biggest holiday of the year. While traditions vary from Mexican state to state, and really from village to village, the general outlines are pretty similar. After dark on October 31 the spirits of the dead are out and about, eager to see what is doing in their former home turf. It’s a scary time, and scary costumes and decorations are appropriate. The spirits know that their living loved ones are busy people, who do not always have time to remember the departed. But one day a year they demand full attention: they are to honored, fed, and visited. Honoring is made tangible in a home altar, decked out with the traditional flowers (marigolds, and white flores de muerto, that look a little like baby’s breath and bloom only one week of the year). Often the altars incorporate pictures and mementos of the loved ones. Feeding is made tangible by piling the departed persons’ favorite foods on the altar: the fruits that are in season in November, bottles of their favorite brew, and pastries, including pan de muertos, loaves in the shape of skulls or bones, or with appliqued skeletons. The dead like candy, too, and brightly painted sugar skulls are a favorite. Visits to family graves are obligatory. Often the whole family goes, with a hamper of the deceased person’s favorite foods as an offering, Once offered, of course, it becomes the family’s picnic lunch. As they eat, they fill the deceased in on the year’s family news: who is pregnant, who has married, who has changed jobs, how the kids are doing in school. In some areas a communal costume dance is held on the evening of the 1st, after the other duties have been dispatched. In the Etlas, it is traditional for the village men to perform a little mortality play, a comparsa, involving wild costumes, dancing, and lots of lively music from the village band.


            Two days before the holiday huge bunches of marigolds begin to appear on the street corners and in the abarrotes shops, which are a kind of mom-and-daughter convenience and fruit and vegetable stores. On the 29th on my morning walk with Mica the thorn scrub on the low hills gleam white with huge patches of flores de muerto. On the 30th I see families with hand sickles harvesting bunches of the flowers. On the 31st Mica and I have to look hard to see a single blossom or two hidden deep in some copse of thorn.

            After the dog walk I go up to Jim and Kathy’s to make bouquets. Linda is working with Lázaro at our casita to plant a fig tree and some cactus down by the postern gate. She will come along later. Volunteers have scoured the hillsides all week and behind Jim’s work sheds are gigantic piles of orange marigolds, white flores de muerto, and five varieties of different size yellow wildflowers. One of Kathy’s workers, the expert at these things, has made two sample bouquets and tied them to posts where we can refer to them as models. On a U of tables lie piles of the seven flowers. Jim and two other expats and three Mexican friends are already at work. The expert gives me a brief lesson:

            “Take a bunch of flores de muerto as a base; add two or three marigolds and small bunches of the yellow flowers; surround with more flores de muerto. You will have created a balanced bouquet about 20 centimeters across at the top. Tie it off with string,” he points to a bowl filled with precut lengths of twine. “Cut off the stems with your clippers about this high, and put them there,” he points to a wheelbarrow at the end of the table. “The cut stems are for the goats. Then put the bouquet that table.”

            He points to a table on which maybe 50 bouquets have already been piled.

            I go to work. Over the next three hours people come and go. Another four expats arrive, and a half-dozen Mexicans. As each of the piles of flowers on the table is depleted, someone brings another armload. As the bouquet table is filled to capacity, someone carts the bouquets away in a large wheelbarrow and we fill it up again. The pile of cut stems and unsuitably wilted flowers outside the goat pen grows higher and higher. Linda arrives—the fig has been planted!—and slips into the assembly line. A little after twelve, with our fingers yellowed with pollen and smelling of marigold, Jim calls a halt.

            “That’s the fastest we have ever finished this. Many hands, and all t

hat . . . Thanks to one and all. See you all later.”

            We walk up the path, across the flat where the wooden platforms of the altar are already half masked by a carpet of flowers, and up through the wood-framed arch, which is beginning to disappear behind a hanging curtain of orange and yellow. 


            Saturday, the 1st, dawns clear and borderline warm. We have nothing scheduled until evening, so Linda and I decide to go into Oaxaca and see how the city is celebrating Muertos. We get there early enough to find a parking spot up by Santo Domingo and we stroll down to the Zócalo on the pedestrian street, Alcalá, admiring the brightly painted colonial buildings. Several of the stores have decorated with Muertos motifs, and every block or so the businesses or neighbors have set up altars in the street. The orange of marigolds and the reds of the celosias dominate, but there are few white flores de muertos. The flowers on these altars have obviously been purchased, not gathered in the fields. The panes de muertos, the festival breads, are huge and have thick shiny crusts. They are for show and will undoubtedly go stale before they are broken up and shared between the departed and those they have left behind. As the hotels and tourist shops in this neighborhood, most of which occupy former colonial mansions, begin to open, Linda and I poke into their central courtyards. Every one has put up a Muertos altar, many of them featuring elaborate sand paintings of the Virgin of Juquila, the Virgin of the Rosary, or whichever divine patroness is favored by the business’s owner.

            As we near the Zócalo, the civic central plaza between the Cathedral and the Municipio, the altars take on a political tone. One, sponsored by Morena, the Brown Skin Party, has pictures of the dead martyrs of several revolutions: Che Guevara, Pancho Villa, Obregón, Salvador Allende. One mourns recently departed compañeros, victims of political violence in various parts of Mexico. Several focus attention on the missing students in Guerrero: “They were living when they took them from us, and we want them back alive!”

            Aside from the altars and the storefront decorations, it is business as usual downtown. All the stores are open. Bootblacks shine shoes; vendors hawk balloons and toys, wooden spoons, flower tiaras, huipiles, flavored ices. The cafes are filled with patrons sipping coffee and reading the morning papers. Three small groups of Andean musicians play quenas and flutes, busking for tips. One trio sounds Peruvian, another Chilean. A third plays Andean versions of “Sounds of Silence” and “Bésame mucho.” The entire plaza in front of the Cathedral is tented over: today is the opening of Oaxaca’s annual international book fair: booths with antiquarian treasures, children’s books, and school books. Bargain bins: everything at 50 pesos. The Cuban government has a booth, as does Colombia, which is this year’s featured participant. There will be lectures all week featuring Colombian authors. Even though this is Muertos, Gabriel García Márquez will not appear. Despite my resolve, I buy two books: one on everyday life in colonial times, and one on hummingbirds.

            While Linda shops I go up to Santo Domingo to watch a wedding celebration. The women invitees sport expensive revealing dresses and too much makeup. A band plays; trumpets and tubas dominate. Women with baskets of fruit and flowers on their heads dance; they’ve been hired for the occasion and we’ve seen them before. Tourists = take pictures, and so does the drone hovering overhead. Artists paint faces. The street next to Santo Domingo has been given over to vendors of typical Oaxacan holiday foods: chocolate, moles, mescal, pastries.


            Saturday evening, wrapped in our warmest clothes, we drive up to the farm. The dirt road is narrow and the half dozen wide-ish places already have cars parked in them. Most of the 3rd Section residents walk up the hill on foot. I leave Linda at the flowered arch at the entrance to the farm, flashlight in hand, drive on up the hill until I find a place to jockey the car around, come back down the hill past the parked cars and eventually, a couple of hundred meters down the road, find a place to squeeze over against a fence, climb out over the passenger’s seat, and walk back to meet Linda.

            At the farm, the flat place fifty meters inside the gate has been strung with lights. To one side is a bonfire for warmth. On the altar at the far end of the flat, a hundred candles illuminate the thousand bouquets that the gang of us tied up the previous morning. On the altar are panes de muertos, little ceramic figurines, a couple of meaningful-to-someone little plastic toys, and small bottles of mescal, some with labels, and some probably brewed by Rebecca Raab, down the hill from Jim and Kathy’s farm. Rows of folding chairs, maybe a hundred and fifty of them, rented for the occasion, surround the flat. A table at the far end holds vats of lemonade and some sort of purple punch; Kathy and Lucy Atkin carry trays of drinks to the families who are filing in and staking out groups of chairs. They are mostly young families, three or four kids from toddlers to pre-teens, half of the kids in costume: several small gorillas, a young knight cloaked with mirrors, several painted faces.

            It is nearly 8:20 and no sign or sound of the comparsa. When the crowd of players comes, they will be rowdy, and accompanied by a band that is long on trumpets, trombones, and tubas, so we ought to hear it a half kilometer away. We spend our time chatting with friends and huddling together for warmth. By 8:40 nearly all the chairs are filled. Kathy comes by with another drink tray.

            “There is nobody here, yet. Look how empty it is. Somehow everybody knows that the band is going to be late. They’ve probably taken a different route and stopped to play at somebody’s house.” Kathy shakes her head.

            “So eight o’clock was more like an estimate of the if-everything-goes-well-but-we-know-it-won’t-so-why-hurry variety?” Cynical David.

            “No, it’s more like everyone else knows what is happening, but we just never quite do. Even though we worked it all out with the comparsa before hand.”

            Kathy and Jim have been here for over a dozen years, and they are the savviest people we know. If they don’t get it, what hope is there for the rest of us?

            It is cold, sitting on those metal chairs, and the wind has come up. The smoke from the burning copal pots by the altar makes me start to cough. Linda is wearing gloves, but even so her fingers are turning blue. She decides to go back to the car to wait.

            At ten to nine we hear distant drums. Then horns. Then gabbling and laughing. Another fifty people stream in through the arched gate. Then the comparsa, about forty men, all in costumes and masks that obscure their identity. All are dancing frenetically in a shuffling twostep. The band settles into the reserved seats next to the altar. About a dozen of the dancers are dressed as women with wigs, masks, and fancy dresses stuffed convincingly with whatever it has taken to complete the illusion. There is a clown, floppy feat, baggy pants, a pied jerkin-like shirt. But his head! A papier-mâché, white, oversize monstrosity grimacing to expose razor-sharp teeth and long white fangs. Several men and a half dozen kids wear cloaks made of cencerros, hundreds of tiny rattling-bells, that make a rhythmic jangle as they clop around in the dance. There are two red-attired devils with wings that soar at least two meters above their heads. A doctor, all in white, painted with red crosses. A thin man, elegantly clad in black, a stovepipe hat on his head and a curling mustache painted on his face, who slowly shuffles in the rhythm with a dream-like expression on his face as if his body were here but his mind was in some other dimension. A skeleton crowned by an Aztec dance headdress. Two old men with long white fake beards and Michoacán viejo masks, shuffling about and trying to induce the handful of expats sitting on the chairs to join the melee.

            The more bearded of the two leans over me and mumbles, in Spanish, “It’s going to take you a long time to grow a beard as long as mine.”

            The Mexican families on either side of me break into giggles. I recognize the voice. The old man is Jim Austin, our host!

            The music stops. Some of the comparsa dancers leave. The others cluster by the altar. After five minutes of confusion the band starts up again, this time with a bouncy waltz. The first group returns in a stately procession. Four men carry a coffin painted with the legend: “San Pablo Etla, Tercera Sección.” Behind them comes a Catrina, a skeleton decked out as a grotesque bride, with three small devils carrying her train. They form a circle around the altar, and so many people stand up and crowd behind them, that it is impossible to see what is happening from where we are sitting.

            I am beginning to shake with the cold. It has been nearly an hour since Linda went up to the car to keep warm(er). The flash on my camera isn’t working and months ago I traded my smart phone with its camera for a cameraless dumb phone.  Bidding friends adiós, I go back to the car to take Linda home. She has seen the comparsa march in. The band was playing, and a half-moon provided ample light to see the monsters walking by the car. She reports that it was magical and scary.

            There wlll be another comparsa, the Santa Cruz Etla comparsa, at 4:00 tomorrow.


            Sunday dawns clear. Linda and I work on our projects during the day and I bake a batch of oat cinnamon bread. At 3:15 we drive to San Pablo Etla’s cemetery, behind the Municipio, to take a look at the decorations. Every single grave is covered with orange Mexican Marigolds, zempoalxochitl, and vibrant red cockscombs, crestas de gallo. Next to where I am taking pictures an old man carefully selects individual blossoms from the armloads carried by what appears to be his grandson and places them on his family’s graves.

            “Do you have muertos in this cemetery here?” he asks me, wondering what an obvious foreigner is doing in the camposanto.

            “No,” I answer, “all my muertos are thousands of kilometers from here. But now I live here in Oaxaca, up in Santa Cruz, and visiting this cemetery reminds me how much I miss them.”

            He nods his head and smiles, and goes back to placing blossoms around his family’s stones.


            It is 4:15 by the time we get to Kathy and Jim’s, and the comparsa is already in full galumph. We can hear the band as we walk up the road, the trumpets blaring and the tuba for some reason playing a different melody to a different rhythm. San Pablo Tercera Sección may start their performance hour late, by golly, but the Santa Cruz troupe starts ten minutes early. Everybody but us seems to have known that, because the folding chairs are filled with families. As on the previous night, the costumes are fantastic, the movements are frenetic, and the spoken bits are alternately mumbled or shouted, both of which renders them unintelligible. Nobody minds. At the far end of the flat area is a drinks table: jamaica, lemon water, and short bottles of beer. Mike, Bill, and Jim tend bar; Mary, Kathy, and a couple of other women carry trays of the fruit drinks around to the spectators. Up by the arch Tony Raab offers small gourdfuls of mescal to his Mexican and expat friends from a large bottle of the mescal that he and Rebecca produce on their farm.

            The plot of the Etla comparsas is traditional and fixed. There is always a doctor, a bishop, a figure personifying death, a bride, a groom, a father of the bride, a couple of grandfathers and grandmothers, a sick man, and a number of devils and imps, with the cast filled out by anybody else who has shown up in any sort of costume at all: knights, gorillas, Star Wars characters, witches, clowns. It doesn’t seem to matter much. The comparsa begins with all the costumed characters dancing a shuffling two-step.  Some of them drag spectators into the melee with them. The dance goes on for fifteen or twenty minutes, until everybody is winded. Then the band sits down, the clarinets fiddle with their reeds, the horn players go to the drinks table for beer, and the first act begins.

            The plot is simple, but it takes a half hour to play out. The sick man staggers and falls. The doctor, abetted by the bishop, tries to attend to him. The devils try to impede them. Death hovers at the sick man’s head. And that’s it. Most of the spoken bits are shouted insults between the doctor, the sick man, and Death. Most of the action involves devils grabbing various characters, wrestling them to the ground or hoisting them onto their backs to carry them off, and the efforts of the good guys—a half dozen charro cowboys in broad brimmed Mexican hats—to interrupt their mayhem. When the costumed characters are not otherwise engaged, they interact with the spectators, poking fun at them or dragging them into the action. And, of course, there is always time to break for beer.

            After a long while, the actors exit up the road through the arch. The band plays for a few moments while kids run around. Some of the gringo women stroll the perimeter with baskets of candies and toss handfuls into the throngs of kids. Finally the band shifts into a march rhythm, and act two begins. Down from the arch parade the bridal party, the bride in white, the groom in fancy dress, accompanied by the variegated cast of act one. This time the core plot is a wedding. Will the father of the bride permit it to take place? Will the groom retain his health, or will the doctor have to restore him? Will the devils and demons mess up everything? Will the bishop and the cowboys protect the young lovers or fall pray to Death and the demons? Will the grandparent types have a good time talking with their relatives among the spectators? Will the beer hold out? Will the children stuff themselves with candy?

            The answer to all these questions is Yes! With almost every part happening simultaneously and over and over again until at some point everything stops. I did not perceive any clear resolution of any of the moral or theological issues, but that, too, did not seem to matter to anyone. The players march (or stagger) out; the band packs up; the spectators drift away.

            Soon only a handful of expats, the party’s hosts, are left. We fold up and stack the chairs that the rental company will pick up tomorrow. The family that actually built and decorated the communal altar—folks who are part of Kathy and Jim’s farm staff—take it down and put the prized chachquis away until next year. Linda and some of the others pick up litter and fill a couple of garbage sacks. Bill fills the Corona and Victoria cartons with empty beer bottles. And then the survivors retire to Kathy and Jim’s house for the traditional Muertos wrap up of tamales, pan de muertos, and hot chocolate. I leave a loaf of cinnamon oat bread for Kathy and Jim’s breakfast.

            I understand fully why Kathy has sworn that this would be their last, that after more than a dozen years they will never host the communal Muertos celebration again. And I look forward to doing it all again next year.

D & L