The Day of the Dead: Day of Masquerade and Rebellion
"The mood is festive with a subtext of anarchy.
Each evening, on the days from before Halloween through All Saints’ Day (also called Día de los Angelitos, Day of the Dead Children) on November 1st, and the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) on November 2nd, Oaxaca was transformed. The comparsas—troupes of masked marchers and musicians—subverted the order of the city, asserted their marching multitudes, pushed forward along the cobbles, and sprawled, taking over the streets, thrusting everyone else aside, turning them into spectators. Then the city belonged to the processions of skull-faced children and ghouls and drummers and trumpeters and the Angel of Death.
The masked adults and children and the musicians assembled in the plaza in front of the Santo Domingo church before starting slowly down Oaxaca’s main street, Calle Porfirio Díaz. In the beginning, these were the Halloween celebrants, preparing to overlap with the Day of the Dead festivities. As the processions grew larger, more people, more banners, so did the images they carried—a queen, a clown—much taller, the costumes becoming fancier, the masks more elaborate, the music louder, until (as local parades often do) they took over the whole street, filling it all the way to the Zócalo, creating a spectacle. Where there had been pop music and karaoke issuing from balconies and bars, now there was the blare of a brass band.
Heading down Avenida Juárez to language class on one of those days, passing the newspaper kiosks, I saw a headline: SICARIOS DESCANSAN EN LA FIESTA.
The fact that “Hit Men Rested on the Holiday” was good news, and an explanation for apparently fewer crimes and more confidence and safer neighborhoods and parades uninterrupted by gunfire or mutilated corpses. John Pedro Schwartz had appeared at an opportune moment. He said, “This must happen to you all over the world,” but I told him truthfully that I could not think of another time in my travels—50 years of wandering—when a stranger had confronted me, recognized me, and offered to help me on my way. John Pedro became a friend and a guide, giving advice and steering me to the significant events that took place in the weeklong fiesta that goes under the name the Days of the Dead.
In the transformation of the cities on these days, small altars and shrines—ofrendas—sprang up, all of them improvised, bright with a blanket of marigolds, strewn with ribbons, flanked by flickering candles in jars, lovely until you saw at the center the skull and the bony arms and legs of the fiesta’s memento mori. But the fixed grin on the skull made it an ambiguous comedy in a festival that was often satirical.
Halloween means dressing up, a sort of rehearsal, but also a time for visiting graveyards. Outside the Panteón San Miguel, Oaxaca’s walled-in cemetery, there was a carnival—food, games, rides, beer—and the niches on the high interior walls, where bodies were filed away and labeled, were lighted by candles. At each tombstone inside, at the crypts, vaults, and tombs that were like villas—with roofs and columns—a family was gathered, drinking and eating. I was welcomed: “Have a drink?” “Are you hungry?”
The parades in daylight were jovial, with prancing monsters and the effigies of ghouls and beauties, but when night fell on All Saints’ Day—November 1—the vigils began, and I went to the old cemetery in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, a center of Day of the Dead activity, where I saw that a vigil was a drinking party or a family picnic or, for some, a solemn, prayerful veneration. The drinking and shouting in a cluster of hearty masked celebrants is so odd you take it to be transgressive, but it is fitting, because the Day of the Dead embodies elements of insult and protest, in the cause of grieving and satire, which is a form of grieving—as well as binge eating.
On the Day of the Dead itself, November 2, I traveled to the village of Soledad Etla for the music, the food, the death watch parties at grave sites. Soledad Etla was eerily lit and noisy with contending bands of musicians, as well as a DJ playing loud Mexican rock songs. The tables of food were laden with garnaches: tlayudas, tacos, crepes, popcorn, and sausages, fizzing and bursting in bubbling puddles of fat. It was a party and a masked ball at Etla—a fat man in a Donald Trump mask; a man dressed as El Chapo, dancing and waving a shovel, to symbolize his tunneling to freedom; and a small girl, a diminutive coquette, made diabolical with mascara and fangs in a velvet costume.
“Hola, Don Pablo!”
It was Carlos, the owner of my posada, watching a procession of comparsas. He said Soledad Etla was the place to be, though I should visit San José Mogote for its music. He offered me a beer and, in his companionable way, narrated the parade and identified some of the masks and costumes—skeletons, turtles, platinum blondes with painted faces, angels, monsters, monks, children as gauchos, men dressed as women, many ghoulish brides in weird wedding gowns.
“They fight,” Carlos said. “They mock life. They mock death.”The images of death, of Santa Muerte, of bony La Catarina, are not mournful, because the mood is festive with a subtext of anarchy.
This protest, the rebellion, was a tonic. In the parades, using the freedom of pandemonium, many of the masked and costumed marchers chanted against the government, against Trump, or carried signs boldly lettered MUERA EL MALGOBIERNO!
This exhortation—Death to Bad Government!—part of the Cry of Dolores, has old roots in Mexico, dating from 1810 when Father Hidalgo, a Catholic priest (in Dolores, near Guanajuato, where I’d had lunch one day on my way south), shouted it, and much else, to denounce the Spanish and rouse the Mexicans to revolt. This cry is regarded as the commencement of the Mexican War of Independence, but it has been raised as well to many successive Mexican governments.
The images of death, of Santa Muerte, of bony La Catarina, are not mournful, because the mood is festive with a subtext of anarchy. The celebrants are people who work and live humbly all year, then seize this chance to make noise, to protest, to drink themselves silly.
San José Mogote was not far away. The village market was a mob scene, but a mob scene with music—the costumed villagers dancing to three brass bands, vying for attention, the music deafening, the dancers ecstatic and shrieking.
A day or so later, the formal celebrations ended, less raucously, with ritual all-nighters at grave sites in rural villages outside Oaxaca bidding the dead farewell. I was welcomed, but I crept away at midnight. The mourners were still marching with candles at two in the morning. But I wondered about the noise and roistering: what had this cacophony and masquerade to do with the Day of the Dead?
The answer was, everything, because dressing up and dancing and yelling were forms of protest, the daily routine turned upside down. I met a man who explained it. Diego was a musician—he played the guitar and sang—but there wasn’t enough work, so he was a part-time teacher, guide, and explainer. It seemed no one in Oaxaca could make any kind of living doing one job.
“Protest is a tradition here in Oaxaca,” Diego told me. “There were big protests in 2006, with 30 or 40 deaths. No one in the government paid any attention. It was the death of the gringo activist Brad Will that brought headlines. The others were just dead Mexicans.”
“What about lately? I saw a protest encampment in the Zócalo.”
“In July 2016 there was a big protest in Nochixtlán.”
“I drove through there. What was the protest about?”It is the Mexican boast that the gringo denies death, or has a horror of it, or in Europe sees death as tragic or romantic.
“Educational reform and demands for better health benefits,” Diego said. “See, in Mexico most of the protests are in the south or in Mexico City. Not in the north very often, because the cities of the north—Monterrey, Guadalajara, and others—have car factories and they make things for export. We don’t generate money here. We have three million people in the state of Oaxaca and eighty thousand teachers. There’s not enough money to pay them. All we have is tourism. Anyway, there are more social protests in the south.”
I mentioned that I had heard there were mineral deposits in the state. “Yes—more protest! The traditional communities object to what they see as exploitation. A Canadian company here is looking for gold and silver, but they are opposed by the local people because they see it as irresponsible. There is uranium here, but the communities won’t let them extract it.”
Then he came to the point. Protest was a necessary tradition, because in many towns and villages in Oaxaca there were no political parties.
I asked him, “What do they have if they don’t have political parties?”
“They have Uses and Customs,” he said. Usos y Costumbres—the term for traditional, customary law. The government did nothing to protect people from mining companies creating blight in the countryside, or factories offering cheap wages, or the violence of the cartels. “They protest in their own way.”
Protest was mingled with the fiesta, the fiesta with ritual, and many of the ritualized masquerades had their origins in ancient Aztec culture, an empire of blood sacrifice and skulls and glittering masks. But the modern masquerade—precisely because the participants were masked—guaranteed anonymity, offering an opportunity for people to take to the streets and act out their grievances.Memento mori—remember you must die—is the subtext of Mexican life, and no wonder.
The Days of the Dead was just such a fiesta. It was a solemn ritual, it was a vigil in graveyards, it was a masquerade, it was a binge, it was an occasion for dressing up and looking fabulous, it included political protest, and it was a party.
Dominating this fiesta was the grinning image of Death. “One of Mexico’s national totems,” which emerged in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (roughly 1910 to 1920), Claudio Lomnitz writes. The other totems Lomnitz lists are the Virgin of Guadalupe (representing hope) and the image of Benito Juárez (representing reason). Mexican identity derived from the implications in these images. It is the Mexican boast that the gringo denies death, or has a horror of it, or in Europe sees death as tragic or romantic. “But during Mexico’s 20th century,” writes Lomnitz, “a gay familiarity with death became a cornerstone of national identity.” He continues, “Mexico’s nationalization of death has a more nihilistic and lighthearted component. It is a modern refurbishment of a medieval theme.”
Disputations on death are a national pastime in Mexico, especially by intellectuals like Lomnitz, or Carlos Fuentes in This I Believe, or Octavio Paz when he writes, “The Mexican chases after death, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, and sleeps with it. He thinks of it as his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.”
But the skeptical Mexican literary critic and novelist Guillermo Sheridan (quoted in Kathryn A. Sloan’s Death in the City) sees the obsession with death as a sham, a custom cooked up by self-interested impresarios—“anthropologists, film directors, and artists such as Frida Kahlo”—to which tourists, loving a party, gave a big boost. All these Mexican speculations seem true to me—death as a party, a plaything, a protest, a somber ritual. These notions animated Oaxaca in those first days of November, along with the paradox that manifestations of the death cult—ranging from the comic to the macabre—created a sense of vitality.
Memento mori—remember you must die—is the subtext of Mexican life, and no wonder. Consider the shocking statistics of Mexico’s homicides—in 2017, around 30 thousand, the greatest number of annual murders in modern Mexican history. This was exceeded by the murders in 2018, when I was winding up my Mexico trip. No one shrugged at these statistics: the wise ones kept their heads down, they whispered advice, they stayed indoors at night, they locked their doors; the vulnerable ones headed for the border, and safety; the others—the vast majority—continued to live and work as before. The medieval theme was “death comes to all and makes a mockery of us all.” And in the street theater and cemetery crapulosities—borracheras—of those Days of the Dead, the Mexicans return the compliment: they dress as skeletons, they parade in skull masks, they make gifts of sugar skulls, they engage in macabre dances, they mock death.
But it was not a Mexican intellectual who summed up for me the ambiguities in the Mexican relationship to death. It was Muriel Spark, in her novel Memento Mori: “If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid.”
Was it this death awareness that so vitalized me in Mexico? I was at that point more than halfway through my road trip, and in a lifetime of travel had never felt more fully alive, more eager to wake each morning and see what the day would bring—even when what it might bring was a nighttime vigil in a cemetery and an array of skulls. Mexico was for me a world of struggle, of incident, of questioning, of people under threat and prevailing over their humble circumstances, which was a lesson to me, of venerating the past and being true, being determined to live. I kept thinking, with pleasure, I’m still here!
The image I carried away was that of the solemn old woman crouched by a tombstone at the old cemetery at Xoxocotlán, looking severe in her grief and staring defiantly at me, the intruder.
From Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Theroux. Used with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.