Mexico · North America · Travel

Dancing With the Dead in Oaxaca City, Mexico

Cathedral in Oaxaca City, Mexico, Sunset

“You know, on dia de los muertos, we really believe the dead are sitting here with us.” Judith, a Oaxaca City native and cousin of Jon’s co-worker, told us over drinks in the hip, downtown restaurant of Los Danzantes.

I took another sip of my cocktail and looked sideways across the courtyard where a group of fake skeletons had been dressed in t-shirts and baseball caps. They had been playfully arranged in a colorful tree and made me think that maybe, despite my inundation of American ghost stories and shit-your-pants horror films, having the spirits of your deceased friends and family visit you wasn’t such a bad thing.

“The time of year is seen as a joyful celebration of our own mortality and, for most, a form of solace after the passing of loved ones.”

“Some people will even skip work to sit by the alters they build for this holiday so they can be with them. Even the time of year adds to it. Around now, cold winds blow into town from the mountains. People say those winds are them… the spirits of the dead.” She said.

Her smile said everything. The celebrations, the winds, all of it, wasn’t meant to be spooky. The time of year is seen as a joyful celebration of our own mortality and, for most, a form of solace after the passing of loved ones. I thought of my own grandmother, who passed away last spring, and loved the thought of her sitting next to us. She had always followed my travels closely (and read every word I wrote here on The Nomadic Beat) and it was comforting to think that she was along for the adventure, in spirit, one last time.

Day of the dead skulls, Oaxaca City

The next night, still days before the actual day (or rather, days) of the dead, we hit the streets of Oaxaca’s cobblestoned historic center yet again. Among the already colorful buildings, strings of brightly colored papel picado hung from windows. Playful skeletons donning hats and flowers behind their nonexistent ears were tacked to building sides. Even the dim glow from the cathedrals added to the festive, slightly morbid atmosphere.

Turning a street corner, we suddenly stumbled on a roadblock — a group of small children, no older than 7 or 8, along with their parents were dancing in the street to the music of a live brass band. Little girls with their faces painted black and white like smiling skulls swayed and danced in turn-of-the-century-esque hoop dresses. The boys, in similar fashion, wore tiny black, flat-brimmed hats. All of them were dancing, tossing out candy, and chatting — miniature skeletal figures from the 1800s come to life.

We stood and watched from the narrow sidewalks. How could we not? It was adorable.

Moving further down the street, away from the tiny skeletons and their dancing, past angry drivers caught in a gridlock caused by the parade, the music never seemed to fade. Before I knew what was happening, I heard Jon say “I want that!” and hopped away from my side into the doorway of a small tienda.

“I saw her beer and wanted one too,” he said, pointing to a young girl standing in the doorway and holding an open Modelo in one hand, and a 6-pack turned 5-pack in the other. He then disappeared entirely, leaving me awkwardly smiling at the young girl, who was now smiling back at me.

“Do you want one?” She said in Spanish.

“No, no, that’s okay” I replied politely, but she continued to insist.

Por favor, take one!” She said twice more before I too was standing in the doorway of a small tienda sipping cold Modelo from a can.

Salud!” I said.

Salud!” She responded and we clinked cans and cheersed before she too disappeared into a large, noisy crowd of teenagers up ahead.

Moments later, Jon and I followed their direction and soon found ourselves engulfed by the rowdier, high school version of the kids parade we had just passed. Like the small children, they too had painted their faces and dressed in traditional costumes.

“In that moment, it was simply another discovery and reminder that death didn’t always have to be mournful. It could be celebrated as well…”

Just as before, a brass band played Latin and American hits while students danced in the center of an intersection. Behind them, the cathedral lit the party — its dim lights creating shadows that danced around the feet of the students. Nearly everyone clung to a can of cheap beer as they whooped, danced, and wrapped their arms around each other’s waists to form a conga line.

A row of tourists lingered nearby, some obnoxiously snapping photos, while those who were bold enough danced along the sidelines. Their excitement was contagious.

Day of the dead, flowers, Oaxaca City, Mexico

We’d later learn from Judith that each school has their own Day of the Dead parade, blocking traffic and slowly dancing their way down the historic center’s streets to the sound of their own traveling band’s tunes. But in that moment, it was simply another discovery and reminder that death didn’t always have to be mournful. It could be celebrated as well.

Several Modelos later, we left the crowds of dancing skeletons and began walking back to our hotel, away from the city center. The further we went, the darker and quieter the streets became, but the sense that something more lay beyond our senses lingered.

Hand in hand, we rounded the last corner and into a wall of cold, strong winds. I shivered and Jon wrapped his arm around my shoulder. Then, smiling cheekily, he whispered “it’s them.”