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El Dia de los Muertos: Honoring the Ancestors in Oaxaca, Mexico

El Dia De Los Muertos...




Honoring the Ancestors in Oaxaca, Mexico




By Dr. Gabrielle Francis




La Catrina El Dia De Los Muertos Oaxaca Mexico




I have spent my entire life in the practices of Natural Medicine.


I have travelled the world in pursuit of ancient wisdom in traditional cultures.


Every adventure is an opportunity explore another culture and to offer back something from mine.

For my trip to Mexico I carry a quote by Carlos Santana, the High Priest of the Long Instrumental Grooves….

The most valuable possession you can own is an open heart. The most powerful weapon you can be is an instrument of peace.

El Dia De Los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico has become an annual pilgrimage for me.   Day of the Dead, or Muertos, as the local refer to it…may appear at first like a great Halloween Party. However, if you look below the surface you realize that you have entered into the most intimate and sacred of all Oaxacan holidays…The day when the Oaxacan people welcome the souls of their ancestors back to Earth…


UNESCO designated El Día de Los Muertos as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

A Human Treasure to be preserved.





Day of the Dead Oaxaca Mexico



Oaxaca is home to 16 groups of indigenous peoples whose ancestors originated long before the Spanish arrived.   Beauty lies in the rich cultural heritage of the Oaxacan People… Mestizos of Indigenous origin mixed with Spanish/European.  Syncretism of the 2 cultures into a new culture.  The Oaxacan believe they are bestowed with the gifts of both cultures and they express it in their unique approach to food, music, clothing, dancing, art, spirituality, and healing traditions.  Frida Kahlo, the most iconic of Mexican Artists was inspired by the Oaxacan culture and made their traditional dress part of her personal fashion statement.  


El Día de Los Muertos is an opportunity to experience the heart and soul of the Oaxaca people.  A unique lens into the intersection of healing and rituals that permeate the Oaxacan spirit.


 Curanderismo Mexican Traditional Healing



Curanderismo is the ancient healing system of Central America and its practitioners are known as Curanderos/as.    Their practices vary and include:  herbalism, massage, Limpia’s or spiritual cleanings, Soul Retrievals and much more.    Before El Día de Los Muertos, many of the locals visit the Curandero for a Limpia to clean their spirits before the Ancestors arrive.   The Curanderos see most disease as a result of spiritual afflictions such as Fright, Anger, Jealously, Envy, and Grief.



Mexican Traditional Dances. Danza de los Plumas Oaxaca 


I practice holistic medicine and work with Musicians.  When I arrive in a new city…I always want to know Where are Musicians?  And Who are the Healers?  And often they are the same…. In Oaxaca, the Danza De Las Plumas and the Zaconda Dance are spiritual dances that tell the story of the syncretism of the Indigenous people with the Spanish Culture.   The young dancers represent the archetypes of their ancestors both Indigenous and Spanish.


 offenda altar for the ancestors day of the dead



In the week before Muertos, Oaxacan people build Offrendas in their homes and Public spaces.   Offrendas, or Altars, are dedications to their deceased loved ones.   They are memorials that are designed to entice the souls on the long journey home.   The offrendas are personalized with photos, favorite foods, favorite pastimes such as cigarettes and Mescal, and brilliant marigolds of orange and red.   The marigolds have a potent smell that the souls love. 


The Offrendas are also adorned with ritual foods for the souls such as Pan Muertos, Tamales with Mole, and Chocolate.  


The foods of Muertos are some of the most famous superfoods we indulge for our health regimes.    These are superfoods with an ancient history dating back to pre-Hispanic Aztec and Zapotec cultures.


 Mezcal in Mexican Healing Curanderismo



  • Mescal: Mescal was known by the Aztec and Zapotec as the Elixir of the Gods and was central to religious and spiritual rituals. The alcohol is derived from the pineapple of the agave plant.   During Muertos, Mescal is placed on altars to draw the spirits home, it is used to Clean negative energies by the Curanderos, and it is the central culprit in the debauchery that takes place in the graveyards and street parades



 Oaxaca chocolate traditional methods



  • Chocolate was considered a Divine Beverage to the ancient people of Mexico. The Aztecs believed that the Cacao tree was a bridge between heaven and earth.   In Oaxaca the chocolate is served as a beverage and is served in a bowl so that when drinking it, you are making and offering to the Gods.   Oaxaca is one of the only places left that still uses the stone ground method of grinding the chocolate nuts.   Oaxacan chocolate is infused with chili peppers, vanilla, and cinnamon.   All adding to its rich superfood qualities.   Old women are still grinding the Cacao on their hands and knees as they pray and give love as an offering to the ancestors and family that will be consuming it.


  • Mole Negro has anywhere from 18-30 ingredients depending on the region that you are in. Mole is Oaxaca’s signature dish and takes nearly 3 days to make.   The ingredients include superfoods and spices and lots of love.   It is believed that the woman making the Mole can influence the health of the loved ones eating it by thinking and praying good thoughts while they are making it.  And it someone gets sick eating it, they must take blame for thinking negative thoughts while making the Mole.  Holy mole!


  • Pan Muertos is another traditional Food of Muertos and the local bakeries abound with the colorful bread that is dipped in chocolate and eaten by the returning ancestors. This local bakery is run by a family that has been making Pan Muertos for several generations.  The Pan Muertos, like the other holiday foods tell the story of the Indigenous mix with the European. 


 El Dia De Los Muertos Costumes



The beautiful and haunting El Día de Los Muertos costumes give the locals an opportunity to decorate themselves with intricate masks, makeup and fancy clothing.   Before the Spanish arrived, the indigenous people of Mexico had a yearly practice of exhuming the bones of the deceased, assembling the skeletons, dressing them in their best outfits, and parading them through the village.    This is the origin of the Day of the Dead costumes, face paint, masks and parades



El Dia De Los Muertos Cemetery and Parade 



El Día De Los Muertos takes weeks of preparation however, the true holiday is only 3 days.


On the first day (oct 31st) the Offrenda is made at home and the Cemeteries are adorned with the flowers, foods and pastimes that will entice the souls. 


November 1 is the Day of the Innocents, when the souls of the children return.


November 2 is the day the Adults return.



El Dia De los Muertos Cemetery



Celebrations in the cemeteries range from quiet family gatherings of storytelling and prayers to full on revelry with music and mescal and a bit of debauchery. 


Once the soul arrives, the families march the ancestor’s home in a parade accompanied by music much like the Second Line funerals of New Orleans.


The family and Ancestors party and share time in the family home until the eve of Nov 2 when the parade returns the souls to the Cemetery.


Here the ancestors are sent back to the otherworld with an emotional farewell until they return again next year


 El Dia de los muertos cemetery



I am spell bound by the fusion and confusion that I see all around me….


Somewhere between the…


   Sacred and Profane

      Ancient and Modern

         Indigenous and European

             Tourist and Local

                   Young and Old

                        Revelry and Revered



          Lies the mystery at the heart and soul of the Oaxacan People… and the Ancestors they loved.  


And yes, it is Intangible….



Day of the Dead Oaxaca