SANTA MARÍA ATZOMPA, Mexico (AP) — Ana Martínez’s hands move calmly, as if they were dancing across the altar she builds flower by flower, candle by candle, to honor her dead.
From the terrace of her ceramics workshop in Santa María de Atzompa, in the state of Oaxaca, the 41-year-old Mexican continues a tradition passed down by her ancestors. Every October 31 she begins her day setting up this space and continues at night, when she goes to the pantheon to place candles to illuminate the path of her deceased.
Thousands of Mexicans look forward to the annual Day of the Dead season because, according to their beliefs, loved ones who have passed away return for a few hours to share food and joy with them.
“Atzompa is a very ancestral town, we preserve the culture of our ancestors and that is why we make our altar,” says Ana.
First are the flowers. The Oaxacan woman takes twigs of cempasuchil that she weaves around an arch that rises above the three floors of her offering.
For us, that arch means the portal so that they (the deceased) can reach our house,” he explains. “We also put a path of flowers to the door because it is a sign that they are welcome.”
Next comes copal, an incense composed of resins that, when lit, releases an aroma that, it is believed, guides the dead to their home. Then lay out foods like apples, peanuts, and sugar candies.
Near the pan de yema—a bun the size of a plate that has a human figure in the center—Ana places a special round bowl: the chocolates that her grandmother liked to eat.
“She was like my mother, so all I am going to offer is hoping that she can walk me down the aisle.”
For Oaxacans like Ana, on this date they do not honor death but rather the ancestors, explains the state culture secretary, Víctor Cata. “It is a cult of our loved ones, with whom we live for a time and share a roof, a house, a meal; “They were made of flesh and blood just like us.”
Atzompa traditions are learned from childhood and passed on from parents to children. At Ana’s home, her eight-year-old girl excitedly asks if she can help arrange the fruit on the altar, and her mother assigns her another important task: making sure the candles stay lit in the afternoon so that her dead don’t lose the way.
The value of candles is transcendental in this community in which the local cemetery is covered with fire on the graves with the departure of the sun. Following this tradition, locally known as “vela” or “alumbramiento”, dozens of families spend the night with their deceased.
They are going to come to our houses with that light that we are going to put on them all night,” says Ana.
Some Oaxacans arrive at the pantheon early. María Martínez, 58, began placing marigold flowers on the graves of her in-laws and her husband at noon. “I do feel that they are returning today but I think they are with one daily, not just on this date,” she says.
She says that her husband died three years ago and every day she misses that time when they were together. “He likes mole and beef broth. “I prepared everything for him.”
Just a few steps away is Juan Manuel Gutiérrez, who visits the grave that he dug for his father in 2011. He arrived early to place some flowers and candles, but his seven brothers will come later to cover the ground, says the 49-year-old Oaxacan.
The traditions that the different Oaxacan peoples preserve to remember their dead vary because 16 indigenous groups and the Afro people coexist in the state, but according to Secretary Cata, a notion related to the land is shared.
“October and November is the dry season, where the land languishes,” he explains. “But it is something that is reborn, so there is this thought that the dead return, that they are here with us on our altars, where we place everything they liked.”
Felipe Juárez laughs when he remembers the corner of the altar that he put in honor of his brother. He liked mezcalito and beer, he says, so he left him some bottles before leaving for the cemetery.
“There are eight tombs that I come to visit. That of my father, my mother and my brothers. All my brothers have already left,” says the 67-year-old Oaxacan.
He and his family will spend the night in the cemetery, in good spirits and with typical dishes—mole and tamales—waiting at home for breakfast when they return at six in the morning. It will not be a sad vigil, but a happy one, says Felipe.
“The day we are going to die, we are going to meet them, we are going to reach that place where they have come to rest.”