As one of our favorite traditions in Latin America rapidly approaches, we wanted to dive into a beautiful post written by our founder, Chelsea Glass, from a few years back. While Día de Muertos has become a wildly popular attraction to come and see in Oaxaca we think it's of utmost importance that we try to understand the rich significance this holiday holds and if we're lucky enough to visit, to do so with respect. So, here are musings and lessons learned along the way by Chelsea during her visits to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
"It was probably close to 1:00 o’clock in the morning, though it's hard to say as time tends to be distorted in Oaxaca during Días de Muertos. We were sitting on the cold ground surrounding the grave of our new friend’s grandmother. We passed around a special bottle of mezcal that we’d gotten from Rogelio and Ines who live a few hours away, high in the Sierra Madre mountain range. They kindly made a special trip all the way to Oaxaca City just to deliver it to us in time for our visit to the panteón. There was a calmness to the moment despite the hundreds of people walking throughout the cemetery and the live music fading in and out from the entrance further up the hill. I looked up and saw the faces of friends, old and new, and watched as they interacted together, battling at times with language barriers that seemed to somehow disappear as the night went on and the mezcal, pulque, and tepache flowed freely through the cemetery.
You will see this holiday written with or without the "los", in Oaxaca, it's usually referred to as just "Muertos" and the "los" seems to show up more in the US).
Hours before, we had arrived at the cemetery entrance excited to share in this tradition and nervous about unintentionally encroaching on people’s sacred territory and space. In the days leading up to the pinnacle of our trip, we had discussed the tradition of Día de Muertos in México and its cultural significance as well as proper etiquette for those looking to be respectful and responsible observers. While our main man, Gabriel (affectionately known as Gabo), was our primary source for advice, we were able to chat with many people in Oaxaca regarding their thoughts on Muertos and the surge in tourism to Oaxaca during this time.
The vast majority of responses boiled down to this:
Be quiet and respectful at the cemetery in the area of the graves. If you make eye contact with someone, smile, and a conversation may unfold naturally. If you are motioned to sit down and join them, feel free to do so. Sharing food or a beverage (most often mezcal) is common practice so be prepared to both offer and accept offerings. Keep the focus off yourself and let locals do most of the talking. Of course, if they engage you in the conversation, feel free to reply and open up as much as feels comfortable. Finally, understand that sometimes silence speaks volumes, and you might find yourself sitting in relative silence next to a stranger surrounded by candles and marigolds as the night slips into morning.... and that’s pretty damn beautiful too. All of that being said, there are things you can be sure to avoid doing in order to be a respectful observer and grateful participant when invited!
1. Do your research and seek out articles or blog posts written by Latinxs.
Such as the ones seen here, here, and here. The last one is in Spanish for our Spanish speakers and aspiring Spanish speakers :) These articles are written by Mexicans and Mexican Americans and while they are more or less in agreement at their core, these are the personal opinions of each author and it’s important to get a layered understanding of the topic and realize that not everything is black and white. Rather it's best to educate yourself on the subject and be open to learning - that's what matters the most! We cannot speak for, or over, anyone and there is disagreement even within the Mexican and Mexican-American communities on this topic. In the world of cancel culture and divisive politics, it can be hard to know what's best to do. In our experiences in Oaxaca, people have been welcoming as long as you remain respectful, keep your camera out of their faces, and give them space to be with their families during this important time.
2. Don’t paint your face with the Catrina makeup when going to the cemetery.
There is still some debate as to whether or not having your face painted in Oaxaca City is bordering on cultural appropriation or not. Most people in Oaxaca claim that if your face is painted by a local and you're in Oaxaca and you have a general understanding of the significance that it’s ok, whereas painting yourself with Catrina makeup for a Halloween party in the U.S. is a no-no. It’s also rather frowned upon for foreigners to visit the cemeteries in Oaxaca with Catrina paint so save that for the city and please wash your face before heading to the cemetery. If you attend a festival in the U.S. make sure it's run by the local Latino community and if you want to get your face painted it's best to pay a local artist at the festival to do it for you! One of the core objections to cultural appropriation is when a person from outside of a culture profits off the commercialization of cultural practices not native to them without there being financial compensation and/or recognition of the people from that culture. If you are engaging in Muertos-related activities it's best to buy food, decorations, apparel, etc. from Mexican and/or Mexican-American businesses.
3. Don’t take photos at the cemetery.
It’s very tempting to do this (albeit really hard to get a decent photo with the lighting) but it’s generally discouraged. If you do opt to take photos, please don’t use flash and don’t take photos of people. Snapping a couple of discreet shots of the overall scene at the cemetery is "okish", but unless you’re a professional photographer with permission and a pre-existing relationship with the community it’s best to leave the camera at home. This is why we have very few photos of our actual time at the cemetery. Plus, by not being behind the camera you are more present and in the moment. There are plenty of other great places for photo opportunities in Oaxaca so we really encourage you to go camera-free for this night!
4. Don’t step on the graves.
The graves are close together so you have to navigate your way through narrow dirt paths in order to avoid dancing on any graves so please be intentional where you step! The candlelight helps a lot to see where you're going but a flashlight can come in handy especially if you have limited vision, are prone to tripping, or have limited mobility.
5. Don’t compare Día de Muertos to Halloween.
They aren't the same and calling Día de Muertos "Mexican Halloween" can be considered offensive. While there are some similarities between these two celebrations most Mexicans and Mexican Americans reject the blending of these two and prefer for Muertos to be acknowledged for the separate, independent holiday that it is.
6. Don’t get super drunk and rowdy.
Drinking is a part of Día de Muertos for many but the cemetery is not the place to get hammered or be rowdy. Back in Oaxaca City, there will be parades in the streets and cantinas open until late if you’re looking for a party vibe (which is totally fine as long as you're respectful and responsible). However, the cemetery, while not somber in the same way we think of cemeteries in the U.S. is NOT a party, at least not by the graves. Closer to the entrance there might be some music and dancing, in which case in this area you can participate but follow the locals' lead on this one. As a visitor, you shouldn't be the loudest one there, let others set the the tone.
7. Support Latinx businesses during this time of year, whether you’re in Oaxaca or somewhere else, including the United States.
Día de Muertos has become insanely commercialized in the States in recent times so if you’re going to buy sugar skull-themed napkins, get your face painted, attend a festival, or whatever, make sure the proceeds of your consumerism are supporting individuals and businesses with strong ties to the culture. Example: Don’t buy sugar skull napkins at Target, find someone in your community who is making and selling them!
8. Don’t make your Día de Muertos experience all about yourself, especially on social media.
While you have every right to have your own personal experience and share it with people it's important to remember that social media is an extremely powerful tool and we often don’t realize the impact (negative or positive ) we can have through what we post. If you do post about the experience, do so tastefully, make it educational, and ideally turn your platform into space for members of the culture to share their voice without you talking over them. Share their stories, tag them, and if you have someone close to you let them do a story “take over”.
Also, remember that Mexican and Mexican Americans are not a monolith. Mexico is a huge and diverse nation with a complex history and not everyone in México shares the same beliefs traditions, history, and opinions. The same goes for the Mexican-American population. Likewise, there are many other Latin American countries with their own traditions on Nov 1st and 2nd so be sure not to accidentally equate Mexican Día de Muertos with the entire Latin American region. Now that you know how to celebrate respectfully, we'd love for you to join us this October 2023 in Oaxaca! We have just 4 spots left so be sure to sign up today!
A few photos were taken by our dear friend, Ed Davila, who went on our 2018 trip to Oaxaca for Día de Muertos. It was an incredible trip with such a wonderful group of people that we will cherish forever. We laughed, cried, stuffed our faces, danced in the streets, made new friends, learned about Oaxaca, and had an overall blast. Other photos are from our in-house photographer, Allie Jorde, who will be in Oaxaca again this year! Thank you so much Edmundo for the incredible photos that help to depict the essence of Día de Muertos in Oaxaca and the spirit of traveling with Heart of Travel. Thank you to Gabriel Sanchez and all of our friends in Oaxaca for welcoming us to learn and join in this beautiful moment!