As you may already know, the Days of the Dead or Dias de los Muertos have already passed, but they are worth mentioning, since they originated in Oaxaca.
Typically only one day is celebrated, but in Oaxaca two days are devoted to honoring the dead. November 1st is Catholic All Saint's Day and November 2nd is All Soul's Day. Oaxaca has an interesting mix of traditional practices that can be traced back to the indigenous peoples of the region and the beliefs of Catholicism. Originally, the Spanish weren't too thrilled that the indigenous populations embraced Catholicism while following their original beliefs, but they eventually resigned to this fact. Now, most festivals in Oaxaca are a mixture of Catholic traditions with the pre-Hispanic religion.
Los Dias de los Muertos are meant to honor those who have passed on. The holiday is somewhat similar to Halloween in that it is believed that during that particular time of year, the realms between this world and the next are at their closest and it is possible for the dead to come amongst us. Many Mexicans choose to honor this time by paying respect to loved ones that have passed on.
This is mainly done by creating altars for the dead. The altars consist of pictures of the deceased, candles, the person's favorite cigarettes, food, beer, candy, bread, fruit, and spiced preserved pumpkin. The spiced preserved pumpkin is a Oaxacan tradition, and since it takes four days to make this dish, it's meant to represent four days spent to please someone dearly loved. Altars themselves can be placed literally everywhere, but typically one is at home and often there are altars in shops.
In the days beforehand, shops in Oaxaca sell special items. Decorated skulls made out of sugar and costumed skeleteons are sold by candy-sellers, and stores become fully stocked with breads, fruits, cockscombs, marigolds, and fresh sugar cane. These are used to decorate the altars, and the sugar cane is used to make an archway that the dead pass through. Marigolds are sold aplenty and are the mostly commonly used flowers (which I find interesting, since they're also widely used for celebrations in India).
At home and in bakeries, a sweet and colorfully decorated bread called Pan de Muerto is made. Pan Resobado is also made, which is another type of bread that is inset with an image of a man or a woman and is also colorfully decorated. People give these to one another during Los Dias de los Muertos, either when they visit someone's house or when someone visits their home, and they are also used for adorning altars.
It is common for people to visit the graves of the deceased and clean and decorate them. This usually happens on November 1st, and some people will stay in the graveyard all night telling stories to others about their departed loved ones. This is why I have always enjoyed Dia de los Muertos: it's a way of fondly remembering those we've lost, and even though skeletons and skulls run rampant, they're not considered sinister or dark. It's a celebration that honors the ones we miss without being depressing or sad; it shows recognition for the impact that they've had on our lives and acts as a way to keep them in our hearts.
To celebrate this event, my boyfriend Serrano and I went to a Dia de los Muertos event at a mission in Oceanside on Halloween. Our favorite display was a row of classic cars, most of which had altars in the trunks.
Traditional altars were also set up on tables, some of which were more elaborate and displayed marigolds, but I thought these were an interesting sign of how traditions are constantly changing and adapting to their contexts. There was a chalk cemetery, where you could draw an epitaph for someone lost. Unfortunately, I have a laundry list of people I could mention, but I chose instead to focus on my mother's cousin Tracy, who dropped dead of a heart attack earlier this year.
Of course, there was plenty of food. In addition to too much kettle corn (that was supposedly dairy free but mysteriously gave me a lot of gas later on), I ate a pork tamale and one of the best carne asada tacos I've ever had, which is saying something.
I did our makeup for the event, and other people either came with painted faces or had their faces painted at the event. I'm not sure where that tradition comes from, but it's not uncommon, and a fair amount of people either stared at us, complemented our makeup, or even asked to take pictures of us.
The event was a cheerful way to remember those we've lost. Serrano and I did get a little choked up drawing chalk cemeteries, but as soon as we were done the live music, colors, and sheer mass of people picked our spirits up. We both enjoyed the event and agreed that this will be an annual tradition that we'll continue.