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Mexico's Day of the Dead : Soul Searching in Oaxaca : The True Spirit of the Festival Can Be Discovered in a Small Village Cemetery --If One Doesn't Try Too Hard to Find It

October 07, 1990|PAUL FELDMAN and IRIS SCHNEIDER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

OAXACA, Mexico — "Poor Mexico," Porfirio Diaz, the country's former president, once lamented. "So far from God and so close to the United States."

We beg to differ.

On Nov. 2, in Diaz's own state of Oaxaca, Mexico seems just the opposite--so close to God and so far from the United States.

On that day Mexicans welcome back the spirits of their deceased relatives by celebrating El Dia de los Muertos --the Day of the Dead.

In rituals that combine the raucousness of an Irish wake and the solemnity of a Jewish Yom Kippur service, families gather at gravesides to celebrate life while remembering their dead.

The ceremonies may sound ghoulish. Some families munch sweets while seated on the graves of their ancestors. Others pay mariachi bands to play tunes for their dead loved ones. Stereos blast. Mescal flows. Cemeteries are transformed from shrines of solitude into bustling block parties.

Yet the experience is stirring, not jarring.

"Fiestas," said Mexican poet Octavio Paz, "are our only luxury. They replace . . . the theater and vacations, Anglo-Saxon weekends and cocktail parties."

During the Day of the Dead, Mexicans weave death into the fabric of their lives, thereby making the inevitable seem far less threatening.

"There is nothing," Paz added, "so joyous as a Mexican fiesta, but there is also nothing so sorrowful." It was this dichotomy that fascinated us.

Our journey to Oaxaca was a long time coming. The seeds were planted years ago while watching skeletons frolic behind the credits of John Huston's film version of "Under the Volcano."

In Los Angeles, with its rich Mexican influences, it is possible to participate in local Day of the Dead festivities and to cruise art galleries laden with whimsical treasures from Oaxaca, a center of Mexico's folk art culture.

But the more we learned about the Day of the Dead, the further from its heart we felt.

When we finally made our plans to go, visions of sugar skulls danced in our heads. The skulls, ornately decorated confections created for the festival, are only one example of the playful ghouls that embody the duality of the holiday. There are also small plaster skeletons dressed as doctors, housewives, photographers or basketball players--skeletons, in fact, from all walks of life--available at Oaxacan markets and art galleries. There is even pan de muerto, bread baked in skeleton shapes or with disembodied little heads peeking from inside.

By the time we booked our reservations last August, the major hotels on Oaxaca's main square--at least the ones with telephones--were full. We were fortunate to find a room on the outskirts of town, a 20-minute walk from the zocalo or town square.

We arrived in Oaxaca three days before the holiday, hoping to watch the city prepare. As our cab inched its way through the surging crowd near the zocalo , we felt we were already late for a party:

Music blasted from speakers set up outside the 450-year-old Catedral de Oaxaca. Youngsters, many dressed in native Mixtec Indian huipils, wove their way through the crowd with baskets of gardenias and hand-carved wooden bookmarks. Sidewalk cafes were crowded with diners and drinkers.

The next morning, we set out to gather details about the festival. But the more we asked, the less we knew.

Seasoned travelers said it was best to get out of the big city to witness the ceremonies that capture the spirit of the holiday. They regaled us with stories but were vague on dates and places, and they added that without an invitation, we might feel unwelcome at a rural graveyard.

Several Oaxacans, meanwhile, talked of a grand religious procession in town at the richly decorated Iglesia de Santo Domingo. But most people we encountered were so eager to please that they nodded and smiled in response to whatever we asked

The tourist board was another matter. There, representatives were as forthcoming as Albanian border guards. No, they said, there are no special celebrations for the Day of the Dead here. Go shopping, they suggested. Rent a car. See a play--there's one about Dia de los Muertos just down the street.

The one thing we felt certain of was that something was happening and we didn't know where it was.

As the days passed, we explored nearby villages. Several are known for specific crafts--rugs from Teotitlan del Valle, black pottery from San Bartolo Coyotepec and carved animals from Arasola.

We learned that many native treasures are still affordable, particularly when compared to the dramatically rising prices for Mexican folk art in Los Angeles. The idea of meeting the artists in person made our trips into the countryside even more appealing.

In every village we asked about the Day of the Dead. Gradually we learned that each town has its own special way of celebrating the holiday, with some graveside ceremonies actually held on the evenings of October 31 or November 1.

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