The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is celebrated November 1 – 2 in Oaxaca, as it is throughout Mexico and several countries in southern Europe. Honoring the dead begins in Mexico on November 1, All Saints’ Day and continues to All Souls’ Day on November 2, although in reality, the entire month of November is given over to remembering the dead in Oaxaca and is called the Month of the Souls.
The festival in Oaxaca shares common ingredients with other Mexican states and countries such as Spain and Italy, which also observe the holiday. These southern European traditions include: cleaning and decorating cemeteries, food offerings to the dead, special breads and sweets, the ubiquitous skull and skeleton imagery, and costumed people wandering from house to house begging food for the dead.
Although there is some debate in Oaxaca about exactly at what time the dead souls return and depart, November 1 (Día de los Angelitos) is understood to be the day in which the souls of deceased children return and November 2 (Día de los Grandes) is the day for returning adults. Unlike much of Mexico, Oaxacans remember the dead throughout November, setting aside consecutive Mondays after November 2 for special prayers and cemetery visits. These are the Días de los Responsos (Responsary Days) .Six city cemeteries form part of the Cemetery Cycle, which begins in the Panteón General.
Just before Los Muertos itself, shoppers will crowd the Mercado de Abastos, Oaxaca’s main market, where Los Muertos items are available in a special area of the market known as the tianguis. Here, one can find candles, religious portraits, bright flowers, pan de los muertos (bread shaped as bones or human bodies), calaveras (sugar skulls), candied fruit, and whimsical skeletal figures. These items, along with food and drink offerings will find their way onto home altars or altars set up in public places, such as hotels, schools and other public places.
The home altars are maintained for the two days of Los Muertos with offerings of fresh food and drink. Sweets, toys, and small candles all left for los angelitos are exchanged for more adult versions for the returning grandes. Some families may leave their altars up for several days after Los Muertos in order to provide offerings to the “marginalized” in the spirit world, las limosneros (the beggars), los olvidados (the forgotten ones), los matados (those who were murdered or died a violent death), and almas malas (those souls with many sins to purge).
The graves of family members in the local cemeteries will be cleaned and decorated with flowers and candles on November 1. Families will visit the graves during Los Muertos and partake of food and drink offerings left for the dead. Although a typical image of Los Muertos in Mexico depicts candles burning brightly in dark cemeteries as people celebrate throughout the night, in Oaxaca the tradition has always been to visit the cemeteries during the day. In fact, it would have been uncommon to find someone remaining in a cemetery past dark, let alone overnight with the exception of the cemetery at Xoxocotlán. This tradition might be changing, however, partly due to the influence of customs from other parts of Mexico and partly from catering to the expectations of tourists. Some Oaxacan cemeteries are extending their hours to the evening and it is possible that there may even be one or two remaining open late into the night.
In addition to preparing food for the returning spirits, people exchange food so that there is always plenty on hand for both living and dead visitors to the home. On November 2, children dress up in costumes and go house to house soliciting food for the dead. This is a long-standing tradition in Oaxaca and with the ever increasing encroachment of American Halloween customs into Mexico it is likely to become even more popular.