From October 27th through November 2nd, lines formed inside the markets, restaurants, banks, and shops. Scrubbed clean and decorated with flowers and skeletons, the city boomed with live music and a mash of languages. Few empty or quiet spaces were found.
It was the night before the Day of the Dead, October 31st when we, too, had just arrived from Puerto Angel, located on the Oaxaca coast where we spent five days sharing communal truck rides, lying in hammocks, and sleeping in sand flea infested beds. The week before our coastal trip, we toured the city by foot and left with a portrait of the city that soon changed. Upon our return to the city, we didn't recognize the throngs of people walking on the brick laid street. It was We were all there to celebrate the Day of the Dead, a fiesta dating back to the pre-Hispanic Tarasco people of Michoacan.
The Tarascans believed that death offers a continuation of the same life in the parallel world. So once a year on Nov 1st, the dead return to their homes through an arched doorway of yellow marigold flowers built inside each home. This doorway allows them entrance from the underworld. The arch or doorway is accompanied by an altar to both guide and welcome the spirits into their homes.
Traditional offerings of corn, fruits, salt, and tamales are placed atop an altar in front of the archway along with vessels of water to quench the hunger and thirst of spirits on their return journey.
During the 16th century, after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, traditional Day of the Dead celebrations to honor the dead with offerings of flowers, food, drink, and burning candles were also shared in Catholic celebrations of All Saint's Day (Nov 1) and All Soul's Day (Nov 2). Once a new mestizo community of mixed European and indigenous ancestry formed, a new tradition of visiting graveyards and decorating graves of family members was included in the celebrations.
Among Mexico's indigenous communities, the Day of the Dead is both a religious and spiritual occasion. Some families spend several nights in the graveyard to welcome returning spirits. It is said that the children visit first on October 31st followed by the adults on November 1st. However, for the larger majority of the mestizo population, the Day of the Dead is a folk festival and family celebration.
Over 400 years later, we found ourselves in the middle of an ancient Mexican tradition. We checked into our hotel, loaded film into our cameras, and hit the streets. The entire city was framed yellow with thousands of marigold flowers.
We walked to the city square and into a film shoot.
A child bride walked in a graveyard staged in front of the central Cathedral.
Other staged performances happened throughout the day and late into the night, in the streets, in galleries, and in theaters.
Marching bands and musicians played while people danced and celebrated. They knelt before skeleton sand rugs adorned with flowers and candles.
By 7:00 pm, we walked in a traditional parade and watched a performance beginning at Alameda Park and looped for several miles to San Miguel Cemetery. My camera flashed the entire way, in an attempt to record what words could not in the moment express.
I took so many photos that my flash burnt out in the middle of the parade, which I now think was fitting.
The celebration is more than a few rolls of film, it's an homage to culture, family, and history.
By the time we arrived at the cemetery, the scent of apples, chocolate, cinnamon, hot peppers, and pumpkin placed on the gravestones collected in the air. Pan de Muerto (special bread for the dead), nicuatole (corn jello), and calaveritas (sugar skeletons) were placed on the candlelit graves.
We left a few oranges for the returning spirits before we walked back to our hotel. It was a night to remember. Still, there is so much to tell. I'll leave you with these cupcakes inspired by Oaxaca City and the Day of the Dead.
Mexican Chocolate Cupcakes
Yield 12 cupcakes
1 1/2 cups white spelt flour
1/2 cup almond meal
1 cup cane sugar (demerara)
1/2 cup organic unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
optional: pinch ground cayenne pepper (up to 1/8 teaspoon)
1 1/4 cup soy milk
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup virgin coconut oil (melted)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
Preheat oven to 375 F and line muffin pan with cupcake liners or oil and flour. Whisk the soy milk and vinegar in a measuring cup and set aside for a few minutes to curdle into a buttermilk or sour milk.
Whisk flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and optional cayenne together in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl whisk the soy milk mixture, melted coconut oil, and extracts together, then stir into flour mixture.
Fill cupcake liners with batter and bake for 28 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted through the center comes out clean. Cool on racks before smearing on chocolate ganache frosting.
(This recipe is inspired by Fannie Farmer's Eggless Chocolate Cake found in The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, 1944 edition and by Mexican Chocolate Cupcakes found in Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz & Terry Hope Romero).
Chocolate Ganache Frosting
adapted from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz & Terry Hope Romero
1/4 cup chocolate soy milk
4 ounces semisweet chocolate (chopped)
2 tablespoon pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Bring the soy milk to a gentle boil in a small sauce pan. Immediately remove from heat and add the chocolate and maple syrup. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula until the chocolate is completely melted. Set aside at room temperature until ready to frost the cupcakes.