Taking Lessons from Day of the Dead, Mixe Style
Staring down the shot glass of yet another pre-10am mezcal, I push any thoughts of What about my life productivity? aside and focus on what’s happening in front of me in the dirt-floored kitchen nestled within the lush, wet mountains.
My mates and I are in San Pedro y San Pablo Ayutla (or Ayutla, to her friends) – a Mixe community in Mexico’s state of Oaxaca – and it’s one of the country’s most important celebrations of the year: Day of the Dead. Speaking Mixe, Regina asks her version of Mother Nature for our safe travels in the Mixe region, lifting her long, dark plaits over her shoulder as she speaks. She is dressed in traditional Mixe clothing, and this is her traditional Mixe kitchen. She instructs us all to dribble a few drops of our mezcal onto the dirt floor, an offering in exchange for our safety, and finally we can sip the smoky spirit.
Looking through the open window, the thick mist and cloud cover gives zero indication as to the beauty of the landscape around us. On the winding walk here, the clouds would shift every so often and we’d oooooh and ahhhhh at the dense, green mountains dipping and rising around us. Then, just as quickly, the cloud would shift back, leaving us with only mist and rain, lending the village a slightly eerie, very mysterious vibe.
We sit on small, wooden chairs and watch as Regina pours a red salsa into the large pot on the floor in front of us. It’s resting atop hot coals, and as the giant hunk of corn dough inside absorbs the salsa, she adds liberal handfuls of coriander and chopped onion. Plates of criolle (free range) beef strips and avocado quarters are placed next to the pot, and voilà – breakfast is ready.
Regina’s father, an elderly man who’s not yet uttered a word, comes to join us around the fire. Refusing our offered-up chairs, he instead drops into a low squat that would make even the most advanced yogi jealous. He uses his daughter as a translator and it’s not until then that I realise he hasn’t spoken yet because he can’t speak Spanish.
This is quite a staggering reality check; his must surely be the last generation of the Indigenous Mixe people that have no use for Spanish. In a country where around 92% of the population speak Spanish, and 6% speak both Spanish and an Indigenous language, the math would indicate that those who speak ONLY an Indigenous language are something of the Last Samurais.
Later that same night, I’m stood behind the same elderly man in their family home, watching and listening as he conducts the Day of the Dead ceremony in his language. Just like throughout the rest of Mexico, the family has set up a bright, elaborate ofrenda. For the uninitiated, these are altars featuring all the foods and drinks that passed loved ones enjoyed in life; some even sport a cheeky shot of mezcal and the odd cigarette. They generally always have candles, bright orange flowers (their scent and colour is said to guide the spirits home) and glasses of water – the journey home is thirsty work, yo! In fact, word on the street is that those who forget to leave water on their ofrendas will have their feet pulled by parched spirits while they sleep!
I’d be telling a huge lie if I said that I understood what was said – I have sufficient troubles with Spanish, let alone Mixe – but it’s one of those times that actions and atmosphere transcend words. At the end of the spoken part, I’m selected to go forth to the ofrenda, select a plate and offer the sweets and foods to my friends to put in their black plastic bags – trick or treating Mixe style, if you will.
Curiously, the family isn’t allowed to accept or eat food from their own ofrendas. It’s explained to me later that in Mixe tradition, on the night of Day of the Dead, families go knocking door to door within their communities, praying for the spirits of that family as they enter each home. The significance of this is that the visiting family act as ‘vessels’ or representations of the loved ones returning home, and therefore must be the ones to eat the food and offerings on the ofrenda.
We leave with our plastic bags stuffed full of a weird and wonderful array of snacks. Peeping into my bloated bag, I can see two cups of jelly, a whole cob of corn, traditional Mexican spicy sweets, bananas, oranges and peanuts. I also glimpse rolls of pan de muerto, the special bread eaten Mexico-wide during these dates. Oaxaca’s version differs slightly; it’s less sweet and without the delicate orange flavour found elsewhere in Mexico. It’s also canoe-shaped and each one has a small, colourful face baked into the bread, which I initially mistake for The Virgin Mary. After seeking clarification as to whether or not consuming the face of Jesus Christ’s mother would ensure my eternal damnation, I’m told the face is actually a representation of any passed loved ones. Examining other loaves of pan de muerto, I see that the bigger the bread, the more elaborate the face. I even spot Jesus Christ himself, colourful and adorned in baker’s glitter (is that a thing?), sparkling out at me.
Walking back through the cold mist to our guesthouse, I reflect on the intimacy of what’s just happened. This family welcomed us into their home on the one night of the year that they also welcome home all their loved ones. They offered us a glimpse into not just their own private lives, but also the past lives of their families and friends – people we never met and never will meet, but who once lived lives as colourful as our own.
I think to myself, for the thousandth time, that Mexico approaches death in a much healthier way than almost anywhere else in the world. In most countries, death and dead people are seen as relics that should be neatly packed away in a box, tucked into the dark corners of our minds and memories, and never spoken of again in case someone, somewhere, feels sad or awkward about it. The loud, bright and unselfconscious celebration in Mexico seems to me to be a much more just, respectful and profound way to celebrate people who will always be loved, and the only way to pass their stories along to those who would otherwise never have known them. It’s a lesson I reckon we can all take something from.
Photos by James Logan