The Real Dia de los Muertos
If there is a signature festival of Mexico, it’s Dia de los Muertos. And if there’s a beverage to crown said festival, it is undoubtedly mezcal. (Ok, it’s probably chocolate, but mezcal is a close second). So, what better way then to peer inside the cultural rabbit hole of this agave distillate than to spend the holiday with master mezcaleros of Oaxaca? Although it technically falls on the 1st and 2nd of November, in some villages the festival of the dead begins with nightfall on the 31st. Such is the case in San Baltazar Chichicapam where Noel and I were invited to join the family who provides much of our mezcal at their village celebration. The day was a fiasco from the get go: car rental confusion, leading to a USD $3000 charge on my credit card and a late start on the day. This was followed by an amazing lunch (oven roasted fish with huitlacoche (a delicious, blue corn fungus), grasshopper tclayuda, mezcal, chocolate, and home roasted coffee) that put us even further behind schedule. By the time we began the hour-and-a-half drive to Chichicapam – two recently acquired friends and my mother in tow - it was after dark.
Traffic in town was thick; Noel and I argued about which route to take, and in the end, I gave in. Apparently Poncho - our host and mezcalero - had given Noel instructions on the “fast route”.
Two hours later we were winding through the narrow village roads of San Baltazar Guelavila, Noel driving with utter confidence until we were undeniably lost. With a bit of assistance we found our way back onto the main road and heading towards the correct San Baltazar.
“Noel, can you pull over?” I asked my brooding husband. “I have to pee.”
“No,” he stated flatly. (Noel was doggedly hangry, having been made to wait three hours for the rest of us to return from a fabulous lunch).
“Noel! Pull over! Your suegra has to pee!” My mum pulled the mother-in-law card, which trumps all in Mexico.
Noel obeyed, and Mum and I trundled up a rocky slope to relieve ourselves on the wild agave plants.
“And now you know yet another factor that contributes to mezcal’s diversity of flavor!” I informed the crew waiting in the car, giggling.There's something oddly romantic about peeing on wild agaves under a star-strewn Halloween night.
I rang up Poncho as we approached yet another town to tell him we thought we were close, and described to him our location at that moment. “Ah, si! Estan cercas. Todo derecho! Todo derecho!”
We drove straight ahead as instructed for another 100 yards until we hit a perfect fork in the road. Uhhh…todo derecho? Noel hazard a guess and steered right. We passed a man walking along the road and stopped to ask him for directions. “Chichicapam? Ah, si. Estan cercas. Todo derecho! Todo derecho!” Our car erupted with laughter. When we finally arrived (nearly 2 hours late), Floriana – Poncho’s wife and our mezcal sourcer – welcomed us with hot chocolate and pan de muertos. The family waited patiently while Noel hurried us through the pre-Pantheon ritual of chocolate and bread.
Mum, Noel, Liam, Chelena, and I strolled along behind the Sanchez family, sipping mezcal from Styrofoam cups. We wove through town, following the matriarch who led the way with a popochcometl burning copal incense. The bundle of marigolds we’d brought for the family to offer on the graves of their departed loved ones were wrapped in a straw mat and carried with us to the Pantheon (cemetery).
For the next hour, the family made offerings of incense, flowers, candles, food, water, salt, and mezcal on the tombstones. Noel stood off to the side deep in mezcal talk with Poncho’s brother. Others floated around in silence or hung by the entrance chatting and smiling.
The Pantheon glowed with thousands of flames; the cold graves cast with a warm, almost inviting blush.
“There’s nothing morbid about this,” my mother commented. “In fact, it’s actually very comforting. Such a different view of death to our own…”
I remembered last year’s Dia de los Muertos in Chilpancingo, Guerrero. We’d gone to the Pantheon in the afternoon, and I was surprised to see the number of children running through the cemetery paths, singing, and dancing. Vendors gathered at the entrance to sell candies, hot chocolate, and tamales.
Mexican rituals don’t seem to carry that weighty solemnity that’s usually expected of those in the US. Often, a ritual is so quickly and easily attended to, it seems no more ceremonious than any other part of daily life, like brushing one’s teeth. Yet there is always just the right amount of reverence. And of course, casual conversation, laughter, and full throttle fun are integral parts of the worship and honoring.
The calenda arrived at the Pantheon just was we were finishing up our duties. The calenda is a parade of people accompanied by a brass band and giant paper mache balloons, dolls, or other figures. A crowd gathered outside the gates to watch the men dance and spin the paper balloons held aloft by a thin pole.
A young man invited me to dance; another with a giant hat took the hand of my mother. Strangers filled our cups with generous portions of mezcal. A drunkard in blue coveralls begged and pleaded Noel to dance with him. Noel would shoo him away only to see him return two minutes later, throw his arm over the beastly shoulders of my husband, and beg again. This continued until we left and hour later.
“El borrocho (the drunkard) is important to the community,” Noel murmured to me, trying to remain patient. In an act of catharsis, the drunkard sacrifices himself to the spirits, allowing his body to be taken over completely, rather than the spirits directing their mischievous intentions toward the entire village.
The night finished off with grilled meat over an open fire, more pan de muertos and hot chocolate. Floriana poured several liters of mezcal into plastic Fanta bottles before seeing us off. The Chichicapam celebration was strikingly different to the Oaxaca City festivities we would experience in the two following days: the sand paintings, parades, public alters, and Katrina costumes made for one of the more vibrant holidays I’ve experienced, but they lacked the humble authenticity of the village celebration. And while the vast majority of tourists – both foreign and domestic – flock to the city center to participate in Oaxaca’s famed Dia de los Muertos, it is the latter which speaks more of mezcal’s salt-of-the-earth essence. Our group, for one, felt deeply honored to have been a part of it.
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