Thursday, October 30, 2008

not macrbre, just celebrating the inevitable

I will be in Oaxaca tomorrow, Friday.
Don't by put off by the dancing skeletons you may see. Americans like to pretend that death can be covered up by applying cosmetics to the dead and buying into the funeral industry.(not that Mexico does not have a much smaller funeral industry) but having said that I think the short and brutal nature of life in this country until very recently and the frequency of death as an up close and personal occurrence creates an acceptance. The mix of indigenous and Catholic beliefs adds another layer of complexity. If you look at the art on the local Zapotec ruins and visit the museum in Jalapa, Veracruz, and of course the Aztecs, you also see the cult of death. And, let's face it no one survives this life, and if you cannot avoid it you may as well dance with it!
Here is some background information on the Day of the Dead.
The Oaxacan altars are most commonly built on October 30th and October 31st in the homes of the Oaxacan people. The altar is generally set on a table, and then it is wrapped with a tablecloth, white sheet or with perforated tissue paper. Sugarcane is bound to the foot of the table and run high over overhead into the shape of a triumphal arch. On the morning of October 31st the offerings are placed on the altars; these offerings consist of exquisite dishes that the relatives will come to savour the aromas of. Among these offerings are the delicious Oaxacan mole, freshly seasoned by the women, the delicious nicuatole (corn jelly), pumpkin with black sugar,sugarcane, tejocotes (small wild apples), the delicious pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and the exquisite chocolate ground by stone. There is also an endless medley of regional fruit consisting of oranges, limes, bananas, jicamas, wild apples, nuts, peanuts, medlar, pineapples, and also cooked chayote.The flower of the dead – the sweet-smelling “cempasuchil” (marigolds) - as well as the oil lamps and the white or yellow bees wax candles adorned with black tissue paper are the final decorative accents. It is an old belief that the dead, after their long pilgrimage from the other life, arrive on earth tired and thirsty. Because of this belief, a gourd or glass filled with water is placed on the altar for them, as well as the other food offerings. There is usually Mezcal an alcoholic drink made with maguey, a close relative of the blue agave from which tequila is made. A resin from a local tree called copal is slowly smoking and a trail of marigold petals helps the beloved dead find their way back to their families. Pictures of the temporary visitors are part of the altars. The altars are personalized with symbols of the things that the dead liked while they were alive.
On the last day of October, the procession of souls begins with the children. They visit the altars in the late afternoon and, upon their arrival, they feast upon the food laid out for them. November 2nd is reserved for the souls of the adults who have passed on, but now return. They too shall have their fill.

Monday, October 20, 2008

strange times...

In the midst of very strange times here in the US, I'm going back to Oaxaca, leaving on the 31st of October. Despite the doom and gloom of the economic situation, I think that the collapse of an old system based on consumption and a model of more building, more stuff, greed, and lack of respect for the human and ecological infrastructures is a necessary collapse.
I think the Hindu model of Shiva which celebrates both birth and destruction is an apt icon for the reality of this time and one which we have tried to bury under the idea that more stuff is the way to happiness.
Another model, one which I will find in Oaxaca is the recognition of death and destruction in the Day of the Dead celebrations. Some may think it macabre, but I admire the looking in the skull and dancing idea...the Atzecs viewed death as a transition and life on earth as a beautiful illusion.
So...I will post more when I arrive in Oaxaca. Here is a picture from my last trip to set the scene.