The tinny wail of the trumpet reaches a crescendo as I am twirled by a skeleton who is dressed to impress in a hefty sombrero and his Sunday best. A golden Buddha neatly cuts in, holding on for a few beats before I am spun away and given a shot of strong mezcal by a blood-stained pig with a cleaver embedded in his skull.
I tip the shot back and the night dissolves into a frenzy of ghouls, sweat, dancing and cold beer, finally ending with a tlayuda – a crisp flatbread smeared with cheese, salsa, avocado, meat and beans.
This is no demented dream. This is a street party in Jalatlaco, an eastern neighbourhood of Oaxaca in Mexico, as it engages in the festivities of Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead.
Towards the end of October, the streets of Oaxaca are filled with unusual visitors beyond the steady stream of tourists that come to enjoy the town’s rich culture and cuisine. Papier maché skeletons bedecked in their finery await around every corner, in every alleyway. Shop windows are filled with skulls and bony beings of all shapes and sizes or sugar candies and chocolates made in similar spooky shapes.
But there is little scary about these creatures of the afterlife. They are smiling, brightly dressed and decorated with flowers and fruits often playing an instrument from beneath a gigantic sombrero. They give the town a festive feel, which is appropriate for this celebration of the dead.
As important a feature on the calendar as Christmas, this annual event doesn’t lament the dead or paint the spirits as fearsome or evil. Instead it celebrates them. It coincides with Halloween, but is quite distinct – merging the traditions of All Hallows Eve, brought to Mexico by its Spanish colonisers, with the pre-Colombian traditions of Mexico’s Indigenous people.
Frantic street parties such as this one in Jalatlaco are one way for the crowds to participate in the festivities. But the proceedings are mainly focused in homes and the cemeteries as families welcome back those who have passed on for this briefest of visits. The spirits of the town’s children are the first to return on October 31, with November 1 the time of the adult spirits and November 2 the night of farewell.
They are greeted with a selection of their favourite foods piled high on decorative altars in the houses of their families and friends who also visit the cemeteries to decorate the graves of their loved ones with flowers and candles, with many spending the night there to reflect and reminisce.
When I visit Panteon San Sebastian at night, it is softly glowing as the light of a million candles projects the citrus hues of clusters of marigolds across the gravestones. Far from being spooky or eerie, the cemetery is a place of peace and beauty. Families gather around the tombs, some exchanging memories over a beer.
Later on, Panteon Mitlancihuatl is a little more energetic with people enjoying the music provided by roaming mariachi musicians with many in fancy dress, wearing traditional masks carefully made from a mix of papier maché and plaster.
The costumes are everywhere around town, with frequent parades taking over the main square with brassy tunes and whirling bony dancers. At the street parties, the costumes are more of a mish mash with characters from horror movies dancing with deceased pop stars.
As with any celebration, food also forms an important part of the occasion. For breakfast in my hotel I am served pan de los muertos, a vaguely sweet bread baked with a small figurine embedded within which I wash down with hot chocolate. I’m thankful for the sugary energy fix later, as that trumpet begins to wail again.