When I first learned about the customs around Día de los Muertos I felt surprisingly joyous, even though the holiday is focused on remembering family and friends who are no longer living. Celebrated in Mexico and many other Hispanic cultures, the holiday is similar to the Memorial Day in the United States including rituals around remembrances, stories, and family gatherings.
What better way to remember the quirks and family legends around the grandpa’s love of tequila, or Aunt Maria’s passion for cigarettes? These favorite items are placed on the graves along with bread of the dead, a sweet bread baked with a skull and crossbones into the dough, flowers, and candles.
During this time, families gather at the cemetery to clean and refurbish grave sites. After the work is done, many will bring food and drink and make a night of celebrating the lives of these important family members. Storytelling and reminiscences play a big part of the gatherings. Copal incense is burned to help guide the spirits of the dead back to the gathering so they may partake in the celebration of remembrance. Markets are filled with Marigolds or cempasuchitl (flower of the dead), which are much taller and bigger flowers than the Marigolds seen in most gardens, which are purchased to decorate the graves. The flowers add color and scent to the altars, to guide the dead back to celebrate with friends and family.
El Día de los Muertos is recognized across the entire community with altars to remember those passed, not only in homes but in stores, local plazas and community centers. The altars are creative and personal: sugar skulls are embellished with colorful frosting spelling out the names of the remembered sit alongside photos of the remembered, festooned with papel picado, cut paper banners.
Tree of Life in Mexico City
Zocola in Mexico City
Community altar in San Angel
If you are interested in seeing more about this beautiful cultural celebration, there is a 1957 film by Charles and Ray Eames that shows more about Día de los Muertos through its icons and artifacts. http://www.openculture.com/2014/10/charles-ray-eames-short-film-on-the-mexican-day-of-the-dead-1957.html
My memory of the relentless winter of 2018 will be that it continued on and on, vengefully adding that one little ice storm the second week of April. However, I was on a countdown to leaving for a week-long escape to Mexico. The weather may have been hard to ignore but I was dreaming of not being weighed down by layers of coats and sweaters and feeling the sun on my skin.
My husband Scott and I have been traveling to Mexico since 1992, which means 26 years of exploring the interior through public transportation such as bus, collectivo, and train. We will never forget that first trip when we took the train through the states of Michoacán and Leon, stopping in Morelia, Patzcuaro, and Guanajuato, then traveling back to Mexico City where we caught the train to Oaxaca, meeting lifelong friends Robert Forman and Robin Schwartz. There are so many stories about these years of travel and changes within Mexico, such as the discontinued train service and increased flights to outlying regions, but I’m getting caught up in the past – what I am writing about today is escaping to a place that is filled with art and communities that engage with art that focus on enjoying a good life.
This time, we had initially planned a trip to Mexico City, but hearing that our friends Rick and Oscar had never been to Oaxaca, we all booked an extra flight to Oaxaca to share travel experiences of Oaxaca.
When I remember our travels, the best discoveries, most delicious food, and stunning art comes to mind. However, I am no romantic. I also remember the difficulties and challenges, like navigating one of the largest airports in the world with poor directional signage. Departing from Mexico City that morning, there were several lines filled with epic switchbacks of humanity pushing huge, bulging suitcases. We made our way into the right line creeping along for 40 minutes and just as we made our way to the fourth set of switchbacks into the bag check area, we were pulled from the line by an airline employee announcing, Oaxaca! As the lines re-organized themselves into those traveling to Oaxaca and those going elsewhere, we realized another 30 minutes had passed and the boarding time was 30 minutes away. No worries, we thought, all we have to do is check this suitcase and go through security.
After checking the suitcase, we were told to go through the security line directly next to us – we were stunned to see the line snaking down to the end of the terminal. We gamely walked to the end of the line when we heard a shout, “Oaxaca” and an airline employee ran up the ramp leading 25 persons at a brisk trot. We ran after them for around ten minutes and saw that we had been led to the International boarding security gate with fewer people in line. We made it through security and looked around – all of our fellow runners for Oaxaca were gone and we now nervously looked for our boarding gate called “T1.”
At the Mexico City airport, all the gates are numbered – we asked airport employees where gate T1 was, they thought there was a language error and checked the reader board – yes, T1. Some of the airport staff pointed in a direction trying to be helpful, others pointed in the opposite direction – we ran and ran, back and forth, and my step tracker recorded over two miles in that terminal. Finally, we found gate T1, upstairs one-half floor next to a pizza franchise – the gate had closed two minutes prior – we had missed our flight.
That was when we discovered there were not many flights to Oaxaca, at least not that day. We could have bought a one-way ticket for four times the price on a major airline, but that didn’t seem like a real option. All of our past travel experience had given us the tools to get to Oaxaca today – we took a taxi to the TAPO bus station and boarded an ADO bus to Oaxaca at 11:00 a.m. The seven and a half hour bus trip seemed somewhat bitter, but we thought at least we’d be in Oaxaca tonight in time for dinner.
The ADO Executivo bus service is clean and rather spacious, with reclining seats, restroom, and drop down screens with fascinating movies on them. As we traveled further south from Mexico City, we enjoyed the scenery of the high desert near the area of Tehuacán, seeing Joshua Trees and desert flowers similar to the area of Southern California where we all spent our childhoods.
The final few hours of the bus ride takes you over a windy mountainous road – about 30 minutes into this road our bus driver pulls the bus over, stops and gets out of the bus. Sitting at the back of the bus, I see him open an engine cover and have a discussion with another man – I thought, this can’t be good. The driver gets back on the bus and tells us that the bus cannot go onward due to mechanical difficulties. He will try to contact ADO bus company to have everyone picked up.
One thing I have noticed as a traveler in Mexico is when news like this happens, people may be disappointed, but there is a communal sense that we’ll all get through this just fine. People got up out of their seat and strolled about outside, unpacked snacks, and we admired the moonflower bushes and rock cliffs on the roadside. We watched our bus driver try to scramble up a rock cliff in a valiant attempt to get a signal on his cell phone to make that phone call.
Another thing I have noticed as a traveler in Mexico is that everyone will work together: the bus driver flagged down passing buses and everyone stopped to find out if they could help, take some passengers, or promise to call someone when they got to Oaxaca. The remaining passengers began to diminish as they got seated on each passing bus. After several buses stopped we were finally squeezed into a bus that delivered us to a station in Oaxaca a couple of hours later.
While this was not the adventure we had planned, we met some new people and had good conversations, like Quetzalcoatl (just call him Quetzal) who is studying to be a medical technologist and was going home for a holiday, or Sara, the young Australian woman traveling to Oaxaca for the first time by herself. When we finally arrived at our lodgings, we felt fortunate and looked forward to dinner that night in Oaxaca.
Our Mexican folk-art collection began in 1980 with a mask that my husband and I fell in love with, but it was far beyond our budget. We
struck a bargain with the Santa Barbara proprietor and paid for it over three months – the layaway plan for art. Today, that same mask hangs on our wall, at the center of our mask collection.
We have bought sculptures, paintings, prints, drawings, and textile work from artists and galleries. The only criteria are that we love it and can’t imagine living without it. This work is intermingled with my own artworks, and our home is like a small museum with the art exhibited salon style. We do switch the art around and change the exhibition for our own pleasure. However, rarely have we deaccessioned a work of art. Nearly 40 years later, the collection now has a voice and personality of its own.
Nearly every piece has a memory and story about how we acquired it, along with information about the artist. And this is essential, we seek to buy works most often directly from the artists, or at least with knowledge about the artist.
For instance, our first trip to Mexico we purchased a crow, one of the papier-mâché and wire creations of Saulo Moreno Hernandez, who today is one of the pre-eminent Mexican artisans and has been featured in the MOMA publication, Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art. We liked its raw personality, and after several years added another of his pieces – a gallo, (rooster) to our collection.
We have purchased many wood sculptures from the Miguel Diaz family who live just outside of Oaxaca in San Pedro
Ixtlahuaca. We met the Diaz family on a trip to Oaxaca when they were in the central square selling their wood carvings. We instantly connected when we realized that we had a family that had the same number of children that were the same ages, and were invited out to their home to have a Sunday meal with the family. We have bought many pieces from the Diaz family on numerous trips to Mexico. We remember when we look at these pieces that the entire family has a job in creating each of these wood alebrijes; from sourcing and carving the first wood structure, to the final delicate painting, every family member contributes to the piece. In 2018 we discovered another family of artists in San Martín Tilcajeta. The Fabían family work in a similar manner and their work is held in major international collections.
We have purchased rugs from artists in Teotitlán del Valle and in 2018 added a piece from J. Isaac Vasquez Garcia and family in our collection. The rug is woven with handspun wool and colored with natural dyes created from cochineal, pericón, a type of marigold that changes natural wool into a pale yellow color, jarilla leaves that create a bright, fresh green, and tree lichen known as “old man’s beard” that changes wool to a pale straw color.
One of our favorite pieces is a Huichol yarn painting bought on our first trip to Mexico, with the help of our friend, Robert Forman, who we also met on that first trip in 1992. We had heard from Robert that a Huichol yarn painting might be for sale when we were in Mexico City preparing to depart for home. On the night before we left, we were summoned to the lobby of our hotel by Robert, accompanied by several of the Huichol and discussed the paintings and other artworks we had seen during the day. At that point, we had no more pesos left but made an arrangement with Robert to send a check to his father living in New Jersey, who would reimburse the Huichols for the painting. We left Mexico that next day with an astounding work of art that we have included in our collection – front and center.
The moral of this story is to buy art that you like – don’t hesitate! Don’t rely on anyone else’s opinion, unless that person will also live with the art on a daily basis. Have faith in your preferences, and the only thing that might happen is that your eye becomes more discerning as you focus in on what art gives you the most pleasure.