There are countless of Día de Muertos, Day of the Dead, celebrations in Oaxaca, México days prior to the actual day which is on November 2nd. I had planned on meeting with some friends in San Agustín Etla, which is about 40 minutes away from the city. Many decide to go to this town because the party lasts until about noon the following day. Since I needed to get some sleep in order to go early morning to another cemetery, I decided to go by myself knowing that my friends would probably get there at 2:00 AM. I must mention that I am not the best person when it comes to directions and add to that the fact that I was on a budget. Being on a budget added more difficulty to my travel since a taxi to get to San Agustín Etla would be significantly more expensive. So I decided to take a bus that would take me to the taxi base and from there a taxi colectivo, which is a taxi that you share with others, that would take me straight to that town. Once I got there, I was told that there were no taxis that would take me straight to the town, that instead, I needed to take one that would take me to a town close by and once there, I had to take another one which would take me to my final destination.
I boarded the next taxi colectivo and while on my way to that town, I had a great time talking to the lady next to me. I was the last one to get dropped off. Once I got to that town, who’s name I forgot, I started following the traffic, supposedly me knowing that it would take me where the comparsa was at. The comparsas in Oaxaca, México are similar to parades. They are composed of a band, mainly brass instruments and people dressed up in costumes. It is believed that on November 1st, the dead ones come down to visit their family members. Later, the band walks around town, attracting the dead ones with the music to later take them to the cemetery. Currently, there are few bands that actually walk around the city to later go to the cemetery. Most of them just stay in the city.
I got to a point where the streets were only illuminated by a lonely car passing by and a few porch lights. I stopped by a convenient store to ask for directions to the party and I was told that it would take place in la cancha, the soccer field. Once I got to la cancha, the ambiance didn’t feel like there was a big party going on. I asked around and they told me that the band had left to have dinner and that they would come back later. At that point it hit me. It seemed odd that the place that people had described to me as a very lively town where the party lasted hours and hours had been paused completely. That is when I realized that I had forgotten that the taxi driver had told me that I needed to take another taxi colectivo to get to San Agustín Etla. I had spent close to an hour looking for the party in the wrong town. I made my way quickly to the highway where I could get a taxi colectivo that could take me where I needed to go. I didn’t have to wait long until the taxi was filled up. Once we arrived, the driver told us, “I can only drive up to this point; You’re gonna have to walk to the town because there’s a lot of traffic and I can’t go all the way in with the taxi.” So I was happy that I was finally there! There was a big comparsa, fireworks, and some people drinking to the music.
I can get a little disoriented at times, but I was so glad I had found my way there, well until I saw t-shirts that were being sold that read, “San José.” What?! I couldn’t believe it! I was in the wrong town. Again. The town that I needed to go to was called San Agustín Etla. That was when I decided to just stay there and enjoy.
Comparsa from San José Etla, Oaxaca, México
Sometimes I have no idea how I get myself into places that normally one would have a hard time accessing. After walking along with the comparsa, we arrived at Mr. Martinez’s house where the band members would eat. He has been the band’s sponsor for the past three years. Not only does he lends his house and land so they can dance and feeds them, but also helps finance any other expenses related to this celebration. To them it is not a sacrifice, it is an honor.
Mr. Martinez in front of the Día de Muertos altar in his home.
His son showed me the costume that he would be wearing later that night.
Some of the costumes in San Pablo Etla such as this one, which is composed of hundreds and hundreds of bells, cost around $8,000 Mexican pesos, which is about $400 USD. This is the costume that Mr. Martinez’s son will wear.
Mr. Martinez’s son is a radiologist that works in the city. Every year he waits with anticipation for this night. In this picture, he is showing the mask that he would wear under the other mask.
Once the official ceremony was about to start, where the band and comparsa leaders would receive blessings from the sponsor, Mr. Martinez and where they would thank each other for the year-round preparations for this day, I was asked to step out of the house since only they were allowed to be present. I then explained to them that Mr. Martínez had told me to stay so that I could learn more about this celebration. Being an outsider, I considered I should stay as far back as possible, but then the man that had asked me to step out, asked me to get closer, so I did. Apparently, I wasn’t close enough because Mr. Martínez signaled me to stand behind him. I could not believe that I was being part of that, it was such an honor for me. And to make matters even bigger, everything was being recorded so I came out in the whole video next to the one of the most popular man in town that day, Mr. Martínez.
Community members that make the comparsa and party possible. That night, there are no police officers on duty, instead, they are in charge and when needed, they themselves arrest individuals that are out of order.
I continued enjoying the celebrations until I figured that I needed to look for my friends. Surprisingly, there was no phone signal, so I had no way of communicating with my friends. Helplessly, I tried looking for them and that is when I figured out that San Agustín Etla, the town that I was looking for initially, was just 10 minutes away within walking distance.
It is important to mention that all the dressed up individuals participating in the comparsa must pay a fee of around $800 Mexican pesos, which is roughly about $38 USD. Mr. Martínez mentioned that many foreigners try to join the comparsa just because they have painted their faces, but they are not allowed to unless they pay the fee just like everyone else.
Many paint their faces once they get to the town’s plaza.
Mr. Martínez explained to me that many years ago, the costumes did not have these many bells. It all started when a person decided to add a few more than the other person. Consequently, that person seeing that the other one had more bells, decided to add more to the costume. That is the reason why now they have covered their costumes with bells. The new tendency, judging by the costumes is to add lights. We’ll see in the next five years how these have evolved.
After some walking and a few hours later, I was able to find San Agustín Etla!
People waiting in line to buy beer and snacks.
Finally, the church in front of the great party in San Austín Etla, displaying their Día de los Muertos altar.