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  • Words and Photos by John Domine

On the Road: Oaxaca (Day of the Dead)

Every year, in early November, Mexico breaks out in a riot of orange marigolds ('cempasuchil') and purple cockscomb, combined with brightly-colored banners ('papel picado') and decorative skulls ('calaveras') of every shape and style imaginable. They adorn entryways and gravesites, and they are used as part of the altars ('ofrendas') constructed to welcome the departed back to the land of the living, if only for a short time. It is Day of the Dead ('Día de Muertos'), and it is a sight to behold.

Nowhere is this celebration more vibrant and festive than in the state of Oaxaca, in Southwestern Mexico. Here, entire cemeteries become the epicenter of the days-long party, reconnecting the living with the spirits of their departed. It is a celebration of loved ones that brings with it an amazing amount of art and creativity and turns macabre skeletons into living, breathing members of the family. Whereas we celebrate birthdays here in the United States to honor our friends and family, Mexicans put the same attention (or more) into honoring their loved ones beyond the grave.

It had been a long-standing dream of mine to travel to Oaxaca during this time to witness the festivities for myself. So when I finally got the chance to go a couple weeks ago, I was excited but skeptical if it would live up to my expectations. I'm happy to report, it went above and beyond. So much so that we even created an 'ofrenda' of our own, on the patio of the AirBnB we were renting for the week. It became a daily ritual; buying flowers, candles, 'copal' (incense), and 'pan de muerto' (bread of the dead) from the local markets, and placing them together with photographs of our loved ones, along with items they enjoyed while living, such as honey for their bread, chicory for their coffee, and bottles of wine to help them recuperate from their long journey back from the afterlife. I had never thought of doing such a thing before, and it was surprisingly cathartic, connecting. And it made me appreciate all the time and effort that went into creating all of these altars that I would see everywhere in the city, enriching my overall experience.

All around town, and especially in and around the zocálo, or plaza, preparations were being made to receive the souls of the departed. You couldn't turn a corner without signs of the impending celebrations. It is a wonderful time to be in the city, and the locals are very welcoming, as they celebrate together, sharing empanadas and cervezas with you as if you are family. Although the daylight brings with it every color of the rainbow, the night brings parades and dancing through the streets, followed by all-night picnics around the tombstones of their loved ones in the local cemeteries, which is an experience in and of itself.

Although Oaxaca is amazing to visit during Day of the Dead, it has much to offer at any time of the year, especially for an urban art enthusiast like myself. Wheatpastes play a strong role on the walls here, but there are also larger-scale murals and quite a bit of stencil work, portraying skeletons, historical figures and other images of local pride.

In addition to the art, there is a pretty incredible food scene in Oaxaca. The local specialty is molé, a dish made from cacao (chocolate) as well as about 30 other ingredients, cooked for several hours, which results in a rich, sweet and savory sauce that goes perfect with chicken and tortillas. In Oaxaca, black molé is king, but there are also red, green and yellow, which have different flavor profiles (and color) based on the types of chiles used. It is often served with the local hooch, mezcal, which is similar to tequila but made from many different types of agave rather than a single one.

When traveling, we like to take a cooking class to get an inside look at the local cuisine. In Oaxaca, we had a very intimate class with Esperanza through Cooking Classes Oaxaca, which began in the market where we picked up some of the ingredients and sampled some of the chapulines (grasshoppers) we would be using in our meal. Then we took a cab to a private residence owned by our charming and humorous host, Augustin. Not only did we eat to our heart's content, but since it was also Open Bar, we drank to our heart's content as well. Sharing his homemade mezcal along with bottles of local beer while preparing sauces, memelitas, quesadillas, and black molé was the perfect way to round out our trip.

If you have ever thought of taking a trip South of the border to experience the celebration of Day of the Dead, I would highly recommend a trip to Oaxaca. Any time of the year is worth the trip for amazing food, culture, color, or even just for mezcal. So, what are you waiting for?

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