Alive with the dead

Oaxacan revellers find joy in remembering their loved ones during a colourful festival, writes Helen Pitt.

The mariachi band is late. The assembled gringos (white tourists) sigh audibly, wince at their watches and tap toes while they wait anxiously for the Mexican musicians to appear to lead the El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) procession in the southern city of Oaxaca. When the seven-member band arrive they dawdle on Mexican time: straighten sombreros, unhurriedly tune instruments and shine buttons.

Finally, 90 minutes or so after the advertised starting time, the trumpeter strikes up the first bars of Ai, ai, ai, ai, canto y no llores, (''Sing and don't cry''), the unofficial anthem for the Mexican tradition that celebrates death as a part of life.

Later that night, after following the procession to a candle-lit cemetery for a graveyard party to welcome the spirits back to Earth, the now grinning gringos gather in the main zocalo (town square). Mexicans have a much healthier attitude to everything, a gringo from Ohio proclaims: from punctuality to death.

The Day of the Dead is an annual Mexican festival that honours the dead and is held from October 31 to November 2. Celebrated at the same time as Halloween (October 31) and the Catholic holy days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 1-2), it's an indigenous tradition, not a Christian one. Popular across Mexico and increasingly so in areas of the US with large Mexican populations (see sidebar), it dates back to the Aztecs, before Spanish colonisation.

In Mexico it is a not a sad time; rather, it's a ritualised time of remembering and rejoicing the lives of lost loved ones.

''No place on Earth do the dead receive such a warm and festive welcome from the living than during the observance of el Dia de los Muertos in Mexico,'' says a Californian academic, Ray Hill, of his experience of the Day of the Dead celebration he attended in Oaxaca.

The Zapotec and Miztec civilisations believed the entrance to the underworld was at San Pablo villa de Mitla, the Place of the Dead, now an archaeological site east of the city of Oaxaca.

It is the epicentre of celebrations on this national public holiday - Oaxaca comes alive during this celebration of death. People don colourful costumes, play mariachi music and join in traditional dances. Luscious scents hang heavy in the autumnal air: golden trails of cempasuchiles (marigold petals, known as flowers of the dead), believed to help the spirits find their way back to their homes, dot the city like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs.

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Orange peel and anise-flavoured egg dough rises on window sills throughout the city, ready to be kneaded into distinctive angel- and baby-like shapes known as pan de muertos (bread of the dead) and placed on home altars called offrendas in memory of a dead family member. Photos and favourite possessions of dead loved ones are dusted off and given pride of place on these colourful altars, which always contain a glass of water to refresh the spirits and an archway of bamboo or palm fronds to symbolise the threshold between life and death.

Favourite stories warm hearts, while big batches of champurrado, a rich, creamy drink enriched with Mexican chocolate (tablets of bitter chocolate blended with sugar and cinnamon) warm bellies. The chocolate aroma wafts throughout the city for the entire three-day celebration: huge vats of chocolate and chilli mole sauce distinct to Oaxaca boil throughout the night and are eaten usually about midnight when processions return from the graveyard for a more intimate gathering in the home.

I first went to Oaxaca 10 years ago with my Spanish-speaking husband, who loved the joyful Day of the Dead festivities. I've been to Mexico many times since and attended many Day of the Dead processions. But the celebrations took on a special significance after my husband died in 2005. Living in California, we became actively involved with the local Oaxacan migrants' celebrations, taking part in candle-lit processions, dancing to mariachi music, making our own altar in his memory. For me and my son, Liam, celebrating his life has been one of the most healing and healthy ways to grieve our loss; like a permission slip from Mexico to talk about a subject taboo in Western countries such as Australia.

According to tradition, October 31, the first day of celebration, is the day to remember those who have died in accidents. November 1 marks the arrival of dead infants and children, known as Los Angelitos (the little angels).

November 2, which on the Christian calendar is celebrated as All Souls Day, is when the departed adults arrive in the afternoon and leave again in the evening, just as the winter chill begins to settle on the city like frost in the high mountains around Oaxaca.

Sweets and skeletons are a hallmark of this holiday and both are found all over Oaxaca during this celebration: either for sale in stalls in the main zocala or on private altars.

Sugar is pressed into moulds to make colourfully decorated calaveras (skulls) inscribed with the name of the deceased.

Nineteenth-century Mexican newspaper illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada popularised the tradition of skeletal cartoons for this celebration, especially the popular dignified hat-wearing woman known as La Catrina. In Mexican folklore, these skeletal figures are always depicted mid-celebration, drinking tequila or dancing at a wedding fiesta, as a satirical reminder to embrace life while we can as we never know the hour of our own personal deadline.

Short poems (also called calaveras) are written and recited. These mocking epitaphs by friends and family describe habits or funny anecdotes of lost loved ones, bringing them alive for the night, if only in words. Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz believed this tradition emphasised Mexico's playful yet healthy approach to death - life's one great certainty - in contrast to the Western one, filled with denial and fear.

''The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris or in London, because it burns the lips,'' he said.

''The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favourite play toys and most steadfast loves.''

Qantas has a fare to Mexico City for about $2260; to Los Angeles (14hr), then on Alaskan Airlines to Mexico City (3hr 30min). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Aeromexico has a one-way fare of about $140 from Mexico City to Oaxaca (65min). Australians can obtain a tourist card for Mexico on their flight. Those transiting through LAX must apply for US travel authorisation before departure, at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov, at a cost of $US14 (more details at www.cbp.gov/travel).

Celebrations in the US

GIVEN the large number of Mexican immigrants in the US, many cities have Day of the Dead celebrations. There is a grassroots movement in some states for it to be recognised as a public holiday, as it is in Mexico. Here are some of the major celebrations.

El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

The word ''death'' and the city of Ciudad Juarez have become synonymous because of the large number of drug-related murders - of mainly female factory workers - in this Mexican city. Altars in honour of the women killed are popular throughout the US but in no place more than Ciudad Juarez's sister city, El Paso, Texas. A collaboration between museums and community leaders of these cities, as well as the New Mexico border town of Las Cruces, involves altar-making workshops, processions, dancing and a Frida Kahlo lookalike contest.

Los Angeles, California

A cemetery named Hollywood Forever is the final resting place of screen icons such as Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield and Rudolph Valentino. Paramount Studios was built on the back half of the original cemetery, where the studio is still in operation. The lead singer from Grammy Award-winning Mexican band Cafe Tacvba, Ruben Albarran, will headline this year's cemetery celebrations, which for the past 11 years have included a procession and marigold trail to the graves of Hollywood greats. It is held today and on October 29 next year, at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard. See www.ladayofthedead.com.

Anaheim, California

Anaheim is home to Disneyland and a significant Mexican population, which tended the orchards of Orange County before Walt Disney built his theme park. The city hosts a lively Day of the Dead celebration with Aztec dancers, art exhibitions and associated activities thanks in the main to the work of Latino artist Peter Perez, the son of one of the Mexican migrant workers who built some of the amusement park rides. See www.anaheim.net.

San Francisco and Oakland, California

A large Day of the Dead procession snakes annually through San Francisco's Spanish-flavoured Mission neighbourhood. The Mission Cultural Centre (www.missionculturalcenter.org) also hosts a month-long festival of Day of the Dead-themed exhibitions and workshops. There's even a mole-making competition (mole is a mexican sauce). In nearby Oakland, an annual day-long celebration takes place the Sunday before Day of the Dead (next year Sunday, October 23). San Pablo Avenue around Fruitvale is blocked for celebrations, with street vendors, mechanical-bull rides and altars - often in memory of those murdered in Oakland; the city has one of the highest murder rates in the US.

Petaluma, California

Thanks to the large number of Oaxacan immigrants, this northern California wine-country town has one of this state's most extensive Day of the Dead celebrations, including processions, sugar skull-making workshops and Aztec dancing. For the month of October the town's shopfronts become altars put together by townsfolk: the veterinary's altar honours dearly departed pets and the high school's altar often in memory of a teenage victim of a car accident. See www.petalumaartscouncil.org.

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