Love in Oaxaca

Girl in mom's arms
You don’t see the easy copout of plastic masks. This is serious business. Kids and adults sit for hours on end beside foldout tables laden with pots of paint and grease pencils, to be transformed into the dearly departed.

Before leaving for Oaxaca and the cultural glories of Día de Muertos, we prepared by watching the animated movie, Coco. I suppose it’s like watching Aladdin before boarding a plane for Bagdad. To be fair, though, Coco is a Pixar movie, so it contains pretty much all you need to know about Oaxaca and the Day of the Dead. We cried at the end.

Virgin at night
Skeletons and tributes to ghosts are all well and good. But this is a Catholic country, so you also need night-time processions and ladies with flowers carried high on men’s shoulders.

On our first night in Oaxaca, we strolled to the zócalo for a beer and to take in the sights.
As a band played under a restaurant awning, arthritic skeletons rose from their tables, clasped each other and danced.

Among the milling crowd in the zocalo, a girl in her early twenties, wearing tight striped pants and a sleeveless white shirt. With her glossy hair and makeup, her sandals and painted toenails, she might have been waiting for some friends to go clubbing.

Except that, she likely was not going clubbing. Her shirt was open and, as she chatted with a girlfriend and elderly skeletons danced the polka around her, a baby was clamped and furiously sucking on the girl’s exposed breast.

Boy + tuba
We spent most of the first day of festivities watching parades and listening to bands. Loud, ragged and beautiful.
Mother and kids
The simplest explanation for why Mexicans have a lot of kids is because they love them so much. Kids are everywhere: sleeping in their parents’ arms, playing under the family food stall, walking hand in hand with their ancient abuelo. Parents are endlessly patient and indulgent.
Red pants
The playing was just as sharp.
Black witch + red pants
On the Day of the Dead, unbridled joy, as beaming parents watch their kids play in bands, whirl in a dance, join a chorus declaiming a heroic poem. 

We sat in a dusty park beside the zócalo, on a bench facing an empty fountain. Dogs stretched out and sleeping in the dirt, pigeons picking at candy wrappers and chewed-over corn cobs in the dry fountain. It was late afternoon, the between-time following the day’s music and dancing and before the night’s renewed festivities.

Opposite our bench, a man sat on a low wall and beside him, stretched out full-length, was a sleeping princess. She about eight, in a purple satin gown, with white shoes and a golden tiara.  Head on his lap, fast asleep, clearly exhausted from the day’s parading and dancing.

The man had a distinguished head: carefully barbered, like all Mexican men. Neat and clean despite his shabby clothes and broken shoes. As he sat, the man stroked the princess’s bare arm and, as the shadows lengthened and the first evening chill stole into the park, he reached into a plastic bag and pulled out a blue and yellow cloth. With care, lest he wake her, he unfolded the cloth and tucked in the sleeping princess. All the while stroking her hair and arms, absently gazing at the parents and children streaming by, loving and gazing all the while.

Couple on bench
In the zocalo. A moment later, he smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.

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