Day of the Dead in Oaxaca: Its history, its altars and how it’s celebrated

In Santa María Atzompa, Valles Centrales, the Ruiz López sisters orchestrate a parade of flowers that soon illuminate the family altar with color: Yellow marigold flowers and lush rooster combs in fiery red, “give light to the deceased, illuminating their path,” explains Rufina, a teacher. The white Calla Lilies signifies the purification of the soul and the purple flowers emphasize mournings. Underneath the staircase-shaped structure and behind the yellow petals, there is a rug that captures the deadly image of the feathered dancer’s face, a character from one of the main Oaxacan folk dances. It is outlined by rice seeds and decorated with red corn kernels, beans, lentils, and pumpkin seeds, which also offer a tribute to Mother Earth, who feeds us. Under the pottery tradition that surrounds the Ruiz López space, there are two clay skulls illuminated with candles that join the light and invite the contemplation of life beyond death.

The papel pidcado frames the colorful creation of the Ruiz López sisters.

Photo: Arturo Lavariega

Inside her house, Esperanza Deyanira Aquino Pineda, La Teca, opens her old trunk. From it she extracts a cap embroidered with white flowers that stand out on her deep black huipil and skirt. The striking outfit is adorned with earrings and a gold necklace worked in the traditional Isthmian filigree technique. She places the last details on the altar––a majestic installation of seven steps, “the phases of life that guide all human beings,” says Deyanira––which is crowned with the Virgin of Guadalupe under an arch of banana leaves. The traditional Isthmian jicalpextles overflow with chips, cheese, and dried shrimp, and rival in color the marquesote decorated with fretwork motifs and the names of the deceased. There, the conversation between the living and the dead is tinted with rich colors and a complexity of aromas and flavors, but always foregrounds worship and devotion, since “it is a moment of reflection for those of us who remain alive,” responds the La Teca.

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