SANTA MARIA ATZOMPA, Mexico – At nightfall on Oct. 31, thousands of Zapotecs visit their dearly departed in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. For hours they pray for them, accompany them, illuminate their brief visit to the world of the living with candlelight, and also sing to them what had been their favorite songs.
In Atzompa live the heirs of Monte Alban – the famous Zapotec archaeological site of the region – and for them, life continues after death.
For that reason at nightfall, the living place candles on the graves of the dead to light up the night as death turns back into life.
Luis Olivera arrived at the old pantheon last night to light the way for the dead as they begin their yearly visit to the land of the living.
“It’s in order to provide light for our people...because our belief is that on these days their souls come home,” he told Efe before sunrise this Friday.
Olivera, 57, described part of the tradition: “We put up an altar, we place an offering, we buy our fruit, we buy bread, chocolate and some mole sauce.”
“I’m a believer, and I believe the souls come tonight to visit us and only us...we are not allowed to see them but they can see us,” he said.
Mexico’s Day of the Dead is celebrated on Nov. 1, a feast day common to the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica, all of which have a similar concept of life and its significance, and which, with the Spanish conquest, added Catholic elements.
Surrounded by candles, Francisco Juarez recalled that he has preserved the custom thanks to his parents, who took him from the time he was a child to light candles for the dead.
“My mom and dad taught us that from the time we were kids,” he told Efe.
During this vigil, life and death are inseparable, nourishing the belief that the dead return that night to be with their loved ones, who never forget them.
Sara Ocampo is certain that her late parents are with her and she waits for her slumber to look at them.
“We’re comforted that they are seeing us. When we are with them, they see us, and we also see them in our dreams. That’s why we come here from the time we’re little because otherwise...we wouldn’t be so happy about them not coming to see us,” she said.
The cult of the dead is the most important event of the year for the Zapotecs who dwell in Oaxaca Valley, the 56-year-old Atzompa native said.
“We sometimes spend Christmas sleeping. But not now – we spend a week getting ready for this,” she said.
The tradition began during the colonial period when Atzompa inhabitants would go to the cemetery at nightfall to pray and wait for their deceased to return from the hereafter.
They would then greet them and take them home where they would savor the offering of the dishes and drinks they most enjoyed in their lifetimes.
During the vigil, largely silent and lit only by the faint light of candles, one can observe families speaking to the departed without words.
At the foot of the grave of her brother who died at age 20, Estefania Enriquez arrived right on time to sing his favorite songs.
“He was a musician and he really loved ranchera songs. The tunes we’re playing now are the ones he liked so much, the ones that cheered him up heart and soul,” she told Efe.
The tradition of believing that the dead return seems to please tourists, who are always surprised that something as fearful as death can be understood here as a reunion with those gone before, filled with love and consolation.