|WOULD YOU LIKE TO SAMPLE SOME DELICIOUS GRASSHOPPERS?|
|MINCED OR WHOLE (AND THEY ARE NOT JUST FOR TOURISTS)|
The first time I heard about Dia de Los Muertos was around Halloween time when my stepdaughter Nikki made herself up to look like Frida Kahlo and went to a celebration of life at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in LA. Back then I assumed that Dia de Los Muertos was the Mexican equivalent of our Halloween, but I had that completely wrong. Dia de Los Muertos is not Halloween at all. The Day of the Dead is an ancient tradition that is genuinely observed, celebrated and preserved. It is a festival of life, an opportunity to remember the dearly departed and loved ones in life. It is also a chance for people to get in touch with deeply rooted traditions that are devoted to the cycle of life. At the heart of this sacred time are beautifully crafted altars and shrines that pay tribute. It is a time to bring faith, family and history together and value this ancient custom.
|NIKKI DRESSED AND MADE UP TO LOOK LIKE FRIDA KAHLO|
When I visited Oaxaca a few months ago, I was part of a six-person photography workshop organized by Master Photographer David Coleman of Redwood City, California. David, who grew up in Mexico City, is not only fluent in Spanish but is also very comfortable in the Oaxacan culture. In addition to teaching us great street photography skills, he made our experience very special and personal because he knew how to best relate to the Oaxacan people,. This made our taking photographs of the locals extremely comfortable. He also introduced us to some amazing food!
Dia de Los Muertos is not a mournful commemoration, but instead a happy and colorful celebration, where death is not frightening or strange. It is considered part of life. During the day there are parades in the streets with multiple marching bands, and groups of families pushing baby carriages and little tykes riding high on their fathers' shoulders. Many people paint their faces in ghoulish designs and wear brightly colored costumes. At night most of the cemeteries around the city are alive with music and laughter. The graves are surrounded by aromatic marigolds and incense, which is offered in abundance in a candle lit setting, where souls are illuminated from the shadows of death. These handsomely decorated altars are a way to pay tribute to loved ones with photographs, mementos, fruit, cookies, and jugs of mescal, the local alcoholic drink made from the agave plant.
On the first night we visited the Panteon General San Miguel, which is a traditional-looking cemetery with hundreds of engraved marble tombstones of different sizes spaced closely together in a haphazard way. The cemetery is surrounded by a large wall, which serves as a columbarium with small candles exposing the names and dates of dearly departed.
|COLUMBARIUM WALL AT PANTEON GENERAL SAN MIGUEL|
Because Dia de Los Muertos is heaven (pardon the pun) for photographers, there were many of us at the cemetery on our first night, but fortunately we didn't get in each other's way. I wandered around by myself for a while hoping to find the perfect photo op but truth be told I was also making sure not to get lost. Eventually I teamed up with Ed, a fellow photographer, and David and that's when things began to get interesting. Someone who dressed exotically and identified herself as the Black Widow appeared and seemed anxious to be photographed. Because of her relevant dress and enticing manner, we initially took the Black Widow to be a woman, but over time we began to think that maybe the Black widow was a man. Either way she/he seemed to enjoy the attention and surprisingly she didn't ask for any money. A rather large crowd gathered around her, mostly to gawk as she paraded around and struck a variety of different poses, but only a few of us were actually taking pictures. I was so enthralled by this magnificent opportunity that I failed to check the settings on my camera so despite at least fifty or sixty clicks, all I got was pretty much a bunch of blurs. Of course, I didn't know this until the next day when I downloaded the images on my computer, but by then I was out of luck. The Black Widow image below was taken by Master Photographer and my coach David Coleman. So, readers, I'm curious. What is your take from looking at the picture? Man? Woman?
My favorite cemetery for night time photography was Panteon de San Felipe, which we visited around 9 p.m. on our last night and took pictures until midnight. Walking into the cemetery lit almost entirely by thousands of candles took my breath away, and rather than the stark marble tombstones we had seen the night before, the San Felipe graves were pretty simple, and in some cases just a mound of dirt adorned with a small wooden cross. But what set San Felipe apart from Panteon General San Miguel was the imaginative and creative ways the family plots were decorated. Almost all were bordered by tall tapered white candles, and the graves were either covered or outlined with beautiful marigolds with their vibrant color and pungent scent. I read that the Mexicans believe that these special marigolds will help guide the spirits to their alters.
|THE GRAVE OF ANTONIA GUERRERO|
Reader, you may find this hard to believe from the expressions you see on some of these faces in the photographs, but we were, for the most part, welcomed warmly into people's personal space, as if we were members of their family. Women tending the graves of their late husbands or mothers looking at photos of their late children beckoned us to come closer, to pay tribute and take as many pictures as we wanted. Clever David Coleman brought a newly-released Polaroid-like camera, which enabled him to take photographs and share a hard copy on the spot with family members as a memento of this celebration. What a genius idea. As his students we benefited from this act of kindness and not only were we permitted to take more photographs, we were also treated to home-made cookies, fruit breads, and other delicious pastries, and in a few cases some people even poured us small tastes of mescal, a home brew that gave us a glow all our own.
|LOST IN MEMORIES|
|PAINTED FACES IS PART OF THE ALLURE|
|AN ELABORATELY DECORATED GRAVE WITH A 7 FOOT TALL CALACA (MEXICAN |
SPANISH FOR SKELETON)
Oaxaca, Mexico is a special place, not only for Dia de Los Muertos but for other holidays as well. This artistic city is blessed with a flair for the creative: famous for their black pottery, beautifully woven fabrics, and colorful painted wood carvings of animals, all works of art that are valued and collected around the world. And then there is the food, which is not what we consider Mexican here at home. Because of the unique ingredients (in addition to grasshoppers and ant larvae) used to make Oaxacan food, it should be considered gourmet, whereas in the United States what we call Mexican food is really Tex-Mex.
|WITH NO TIME FOR SHOPPING, I ADMIRED THESE BEAUTIFUL CRAFTS FROM A DISTANCE|
(I KNOW. SO UNLIKE ME)
|THIS CHEF IS PREPARING A LUNCHEON FEAST THAT COST $23 TO FEED SIX HUNGRY PHOTOGRAPHERS|
Hopefully, next year I will return to Oaxaca to observe and photograph one of the strangest celebrations of all called, the Night of the Radishes. On December 23rd people from all over the valley bring to the zocolo (town center) their largest homegrown radishes which have been lovingly carved into sculptures representing almost anything and a little bit of everything. Oaxaca is also known for its flavorful chocolate and its rich ice cream, two of my favorites foods. I'd even return for another taste of the crunchy grasshoppers. The ant larvae I'm not so sure.
|IF YOU USE YOUR IMAGINATION AND YOU LOOK CLOSELY, YOU WILL SEE THE ANT LARVAE IN THIS IMAGE|
|THERE WERE ONLY SIX OF US IN THE WORKSHOP BUT THERE ARE EIGHT FIGURES HERE. GO FIGURE.|
The adventure continues ........................