Season 1
Episode 26: Oaxaca: The Day of the Dead, Santa Muerte, and The Witch

Day of the Dead in the heart of Mexico.

Passport heads to the heart of Mexico, Oaxaca, for a walk through the dark side – spirits, witches, deities, and one of the country’s biggest festivals – Dia de los Muertos.

On this episode of Passport, we go to Oaxaca, the heart of Mexico, to find out what the Day of the Dead really is. It’s history, it’s present and it’s future. 

We’ll sit at the dinner table with spirits. We’ll dive into folklore, fables and rituals to see how this celebration has lasted so many life times, through so much hardship, and repression. We’ll hear the stories of the people closest to the festival and discover the power of storytelling, and reinvention of stories in Mexico, that have kept the festival alive. But how can death be so celebrated in a country with such a high mortality rate? And why do people look to this hub of culture, history and creativity for inspiration in dark times, for better or worse? 

Plus, we’ll meet a witch who has drawn from the history, used the spirits, a forgotten tradition and the folk music of Mexico to turn it into a powerful forward thinking statement about sex, death and gender. 

La Bruja De Texcoco.

 

MORE TO EXPLORE

SAVED PINS

  1. CASA FRIDA
    Join Yolonda, her xoloitzcuintli and the whole family dead and alive around the dinner table at Casa Frida guest house, and stay the evening and explore the city of Oaxaca.
  2. TIERAVENTURA TOURS
    The caves around Oaxaca are dangerous places, but if you want to dip your toe in the shallows, Tierraventura Tours takes you on a two hour hike through the caves, and across the cactus-filled desert.
  3. MEZCALOTECA
    Tucked away in Oaxaca you can find a load of mezcalerias to wet your lips, or as oaxacans say, kiss the cup. But If you would like a taste of the good stuff go to Mezcaloteca, for a wide variety of Mezcal from across the region, in just one place.
  4. MILTA
    Take a trip to Mitla, the resting place of zapotec souls. Walk the valley, and climb the elevation of 4,855 ft. Where you can take in the beautiful mosaics, ancient paintings and explore the tombs that exist below these ruins.
  5. PANTEON VIEJO XOXOCOTLÁN
    If you arrive during the Day of the Dead, and want to spend an evening in a graveyard, lighting candles, placing flowers and speaking to people about death. Visit Panteon Viejo Xoxocotlán, the place to be at this time of year.

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On Twitter: @passportpod

On The Web: frequencymachine.com/passport

Get The Ticket – the Passport newsletter with amazing new stories. 

CONNECT WITH OUR GUESTS!

Ilan Stavans: on Twitter

Francisco Berzunza:  on Twitter  

La Bruja de Texcoco: on Instagram

This episode of Passport was written by Aisha Prigann, produced by Aisha Prigann and Andrés Bartos, and edited by Harry Stott and Neil Innes.

Big thanks to Alexander David, Robert Horn, and Maja David Shipp for sharing their stories, to Alina Lerias and Kira David, and a special thanks to Michael Brauner. Helene Maimann’s excellent documentary and book about Bruno Kreisky were important sources for this piece. 

The music on this episode was written by the wonderful Nick Turner, with extra tunes from The Moody Blues, Frankie Wa, Glad Rags, CTS, Louis, Johan Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski

Eliza Engel is our production assistant. 

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijansky are in a Canary yellow Porsche chasing down the best chocolate cake in Vienna. They also executive produce the show. 

Which is hosted by Neil Innes and a man who sometimes floats in a big fantastical egg and always waltzes in a fool’s mask, Andrés Bartos.

We’ll see you in the next place.

EPISODE 26 – TRANSCRIPT

 

HARRIET: Thoughts on death, anyone?

ANDRÉS: Oh god, so many thoughts on death.

NEIL: I’m against it.

[Laughter]

[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]

ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.

NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.

I’m Neil Innes

ANDRÉS: And I’m Andrés Bartos.

NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.

ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.

[END MAIN TITLE]

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: Welcome to a place which many call the heart of Mexico. A place which has a history of violence, Imperial rule, and political unrest. But in spite of this, or maybe because of it, it’s a region that also held on to deep, rich traditions like no other in the country.

Oaxaca.

NEIL: This vast mountainous state touches the southeast coast of Mexico and in it you’ll find a complex mix of dialects, over 22 languages and many, many ethnic groups.

It has some of the richest soil, which flavors the food, vibrant and diverse people which color the conversation, and strong, deep indigenous roots, which drive this fascinating culture.

ANDRÉS: Oh also, Oaxaca knows how to party.

In this episode of Passport, we are going to dive headlong into one of the deepest, darkest parties of all. The day of the dead.

[Song playing]

NEIL: The spirit of death in Mexican culture lives in its rituals, in its celebrations, its music, its food, comics, behavior, even jokes.

Mexican writer Octavio Paz once wrote, the Mexican is familiar with death. He jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.

That’s a weird way to talk about death.

ANDRÉS: But it is a perspective that is distinctly Mexican. And today, Harriet Davies heads through the heart of Mexico to uncover how the place created a view of death like no other on earth. How the people have preserved it and how the future could change it forever.

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: Do you have dead that you talk to?

NEIL: No, I haven’t really lost many people in my life, so I don’t have that. I don’t have like a connection to it. Maybe that’s why I’m kind of a little bit blahzay about death.

ANDRÉS: Okay.

NEIL: I don’t really fear death.

ANDRÉS: My, my first memory is a dream I had the day that my grandfather died.

I don’t remember the funeral, but I remember the dream very clearly because we laid him out in the dining room, which I thought was very normal until I met somebody that wasn’t Latino. And they’re like, that’s kind of weird. Coffin, coffin was on the dining room table. And I was very small and I couldn’t look up.

And a friend of my mother’s lifted me up to look at my grandfather and I was into these little mints like lozenges. So I asked her if I could give him a lozenge. And she was like, yeah, go for it. And that’s like my first memory.

NEIL: Wow.

ANDRÉS: Latin America, what can I say.

HARRIET: In England, dead are like hidden away into a coffin and never seen again.

You don’t have that same openness, I suppose

ANDRÉS: You don’t talk about it.

HARRIET: Don’t talk about it.

NEIL: No

HARRIET: No, just like get rid of it

ANDRÉS: Here in Barcelona, in Latin America, it’s the same thing. You’ve, you’ve been to cemeteries here. It’s apartments, apartments with a good view are more expensive than the ones with the bad view.

HARRIET: That’s so true.

ANDRÉS: You have poor neighborhoods, you have fancy neighborhoods, you have mausoleums, like

NEIL: it’s like, I just left this world.

ANDRÉS: And now I’m still dealing with bureaucracies.

I do like the stones, like a good stone slab with a good message on it.

NEIL: Yeah

ANDRÉS: to visit, but I don’t want that for myself.

HARRIET: Well, what would your message be?

NEIL: He was an all right dancer.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: That’d be, I’d be happy with that.

HARRIET: Just all right.

ANDRÉS: Yeah, I don’t want to be fancy. In Latin America, we keep death really close. Life isn’t very valuable, unfortunately. By excellence, the place is Mexico. They’re, they’re the ones that have it down.

NEIL: Come on. Let’s do some,

ANDRÉS: Let’s go to Oaxaca,

NEIL: Let’s all die a little bit.

[Laughter]

HARRIET: You’re standing on a mountain in the middle of Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca, about an hour outside of Oaxaca city. It’s cold here. Looking down to the end of a lush green valley, you find a small town. This is Mitla. The place of the dead.

Mitla is Zapotec burial site, made up of stones and rocks. A total geometric weirdness. It is surrounded by a barren landscape of ancient ruins, standing as a relic of the old world.

This place, these ruins are still believed to be where the Zapotecs souls gathered together.

GABRIEL: Well, it’s on the hillsides and close to the Oaxaca Valley, eastern part of Oaxaca. So it was the town of the dead.

HARRIET: This is Gabriel Mendoza. He lives in Teotitlan, a small town next to Mitla with his mother, a Canadian writer.

In Gabriel’s own words, his father told him everything. He knows about Zapotec culture and his mother wrote everything down.

GABRIEL: My father was a weaver and a painter as well. He was one of the great masters of weaving of Mexico.

HARRIET: Historically, the Zapotecs weaved and painted. They were an artistic people, famous for their brightly colored, geometric pattern, rugs and blankets, and Gabriel’s father had worked so hard to keep this part of the culture alive.

He took the symbols from Mitla, like the ojo de dios, the God’s eye and hand weaved them into the tapestries.

GABRIEL: It’s one of the most complicated things to explain as well, that all these symbols are part of the weavings. And through these weavings, he was giving knowledge to the people about it as well.

HARRIET: The four hundred thousand remaining Zapotecs are now scattered across the country. Along with the Zapotecs, the Aztec and the Mayas, they all have a connection to a rough past, a strong connection to the thing that most cultures fear the most, death.

[Song playing]

GABRIEL: I mean, we had a gods that were venerated for that, you know?

And I think that is a very natural thing in the belief of most Mexicans, that you’re going to meet your creator, I guess, you know, there’s this like inevitable way that you’re going to get there once you die, then they, the journey.

HARRIET: In Aztec mythology, Mictlantecutli, the God of the dead lives in the bottom layers of the afterlife,

GABRIEL: There’s a lot of symbols of water there that you can see on the tapestries, that you can see on some of the designs around Oaxaca.

You know, there’s this belief as well that like you cross a river.

HARRIET: Imagine this river, something similar to the river Styx. In the Zapotec version of the afterlife, there’s no ferryman. There’s no paradise. There’s no hell. Just the underworld.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: The idea of celebrating death has lived in the Zapotec culture since its beginning in 700 BC. In that way, funerals are wildly different. They’re celebrations.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: And these celebrations are the origin of the day of the dead. In the foothills of Sierra Madre, in the hearts of the region lies the state capital of this eccentric part of Mexico, Oaxaca City.

The streets aligned with misshapen and multicolored houses, tiny squares and cobbled streets. The city and its surrounding are actually a UNESCO world heritage site and are also an epicenter for the day of the dead. Every year, beginning the 31st of October, this beautiful place erupts.

[Celebrations]

ANDRÉS: Incense fills the air, the streets are carpeted with bright marigold petals,

NEIL: Halloween orange candles light the faces of people, feathers cascading from their hair. Colored skulls, flower murals.

ANDRÉS: The streets are crammed with all kinds of people dancing, terrifying painted grinning white faces, floats, raucous music, a giant skeleton puppet convulses above the crowd.

NEIL: On the corner a man sits cleaning a pile of bones and at the cemetery families gather while guitars fill the air.

ANDRÉS: Piles of candy skulls cover the floor. In the multicolored terraced houses the families sit down to intimate dinners around the table, consuming the bread of the dead

NEIL: Next to them alters they have curated with images of loved ones.

They tell jokes and stories of those who have passed.

GABRIEL: The alters are decorated with these, uh, yellow flowers, that is, um, Marigolds

HARRIET: Flowers generally represent life, but here their pungent scent and vibrant colors are used as a beacon for the dead, guiding them to the homes of the place they once lived.

GABRIEL: There’s all these Mexican beliefs that like there’s the seven steps to get back into heaven, that that person has to do.

And that’s why you make seven steps.

HARRIET: The alters can be five, six or seven layers filled with offerings, photos of fathers, mothers, grandparents, and lost friends.

GABRIEL: Well, personally, I think it’s a very nice tradition because it’s like, you never lose your heritage to, to yourself, to your village. It’s a way of uniting family.

I put the picture of my father up and of his friends of other people that he would love as well, those spirits of the house kind of like come back to their, or the house of their parents or their grandparents. And they have the same table for three generations, you know, and they’re sharing that one over time again.

And, and then the day the family comes back together and they prepare the favorite food and they eat all together and they put a plate on the alter.

HARRIET: The more you remember the dead, the more likely they are to show up for dinner.

GABRIEL: The candle and the incense kind of helps them come to the right house, through the right energy, through the people, you know,

The mezcal, you know, that they love is the one they buy, the chocolate and bread that you know, that you only have on special occasions is there.

HARRIET: When Gabriel says mezcal, he means mezcal. His family would buy 80 liters of mezcal for one party. Mezcal is the lifeblood in Oaxaca.

An ancient drink made by roasting the agave plant in the earth, using wood and hot stones to make a rich, smoky, pungent spirit. For a decent bottle, you have to wait at least 10 years.

By Mexican law, it can only be called mezcal if it comes from a specific region in Mexico, of which Oaxaca is the main producer.

YOLANDA: We’re supposed to be Catholic, but we’re not really Catholic.

HARRIET: Yolanda Garcia is sitting in her bright yellow guest house, Frida. Yup, she named her house Frida. Next to her sits her Xoloitzcuintli, a tiny, loyal hairless dog that Yolanda believes will guide her through to the end of world when she dies.

YOLANDA: When we have a problem or something, we pray for dead people.

HARRIET: With Yolanda, I wanted to explore all the myths, tales and events that make this event so special and so different.

YOLANDA: Children are never afraid of a skeleton for example, they love it. We touch them and everything it’s just natural.

HARRIET: Yolanda spends months before the celebration preparing and the food is her number one priority.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: Tamales, tortillas, candied pumpkin, atole, the bread of the dead… but the piece de resistance can only be one thing,

YOLANDA: Mole, Mole, it’s a sauce that has a lot of many, many things.

HARRIET: That’s Mole. It’s the Oaxacan staple sauce.

YOLANDA: Mole has like three different types of tomatoes. Two different types of nuts.

It has lots of spices, nine different types of peppers. So the process, the process to make a good mole, it takes at least a week.

HARRIET: It comes with it’s own folklore too. A story of a convent of nuns, rushing to make a dish for a surprise visit from the Bishop. It has such specific ingredients and measurements,

it takes days to prepare and hours to cook. An infusion of spices with other ingredients like pigs lard and chiles, which are all roasted and blended and then lathered over chicken. Food in Mexico brings people living and dead together, but the spirits, they don’t eat like us.

GABRIEL: The dead,, uh, take the essence of the food.

So their food stops having flavor that it’ss supposed to have, uh, the fruit doesn’t taste as much. The peanuts become drier.

HARRIET: The essence of the food disappears. The smell fades. This is a sign that the ghosts have passed through your house. It’s a sign of a successful visit.

YOLANDA: We feel that they have there, we sing the songs they used to like, and we also put candles, lots of candles.

HARRIET: The food, the drink, the flowers, the mole, the aromas of the day of the dead are almost too intense to imagine. That this holiday, this party, it’s a connected to everyone in dealing and remembering the people who have gone.

It makes you appreciate the ones you have, and it shows Mexican humor in the most honest form.

YOLANDA: When children go to sleep, we always tell them not to touch anything, because if they touch something, the dead people are going to do something bad to them. So when we see a child, do, you know, eating the candy, they don’t supposed to eat from the alter, we, when they are sleeping we tied up their feet and we paint their faces. So when they, the next day, when they tried to get up, they can’t.

HARRIET: Tying up children and painting their faces while they’re sleeping, never take candy from the dead.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: I think I got the two most into this celebration, people that you could find.

ANDRÉS: Right.

HARRIET: Because Yolanda obviously wanting to pass it on to her grandchildren and children. For her, it’s super important to carry on telling these stories and tying up the children’s feet to make it feel real and like the dead are going to get you if you eat the food.

And then Gabriel’s kind of holding onto the memory of his dad.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

HARRIET: And through, you know, through all of the stuff that he’s ever done. And through these weavings, So it’s kind of like two different perspectives, but on something that they’re both trained to kind of get hold of.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

NEIL: Preservation, preservation, and death

ANDRÉS: That’s the thing, it’s, it’s a, it’s not a celebration of death really. It’s a celebration of life, right? This intensity of flavors and smells and flowers and everything that kind of like lights you up. And then that thing, that cliche, right? When you remember someone who’s died, you bring them back.

But it’s done in a very active way. It’s not just like some anecdotes.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: It’s like, they’re sitting there with you.

[Laughter]

HARRIET: They’re going to be eating that food and they will tie up your feet and you’ll get to behave yourself, man, cause your grandparents here.

NEIL: Exactly.

ANDRÉS: I mean, it makes me very homesick because it’s like, there’s this relationship to the people that are gone, that you can never let them go, really.

NEIL: At least that person existed rather than it it’s horrible that that person’s gone. Like you’ve just gotten out of this family. You still got to come back every year and sit and have fucking dinner with them.

ANDRÉS: You still gotta overeat, all the food, no matter what.

[Laughter]

HARRIET: You go to your next door neighbor and you’re like, have you see my auntie, she supposed to be here.

ANDRÉS: We’ve been waiting for like two days

NEIL: She wandered off to some Marigold smelling house

HARRIET: God dammit

ANDRÉS: They have much better mole over there.

[Laughter]

HARRIET: I’d go to that house too.

NEIL There’s arguments amongst the dead over whose Mole is better on the boat back.

ANDRÉS: I’m sure. They’re like, they overdo it with the nuts,

NEIL: All the dead talking about how much of fuck ups their grandchildren are.

[Song playing]

YOLANDA: In little towns, there are parades that they are organized by different neighborhoods and they dress beautiful costumes with lots of rattles. The rittales are very heavy and they dance all night

HARRIET: In the towns outside of Oaxaca, the sounds of rattles are deafening

YOLANDA: They don’t sleep all night and they go to the cemeteries to sing for the day of the dead to wake them up.

HARRIET: And the singers who head to the graves to wake the dead are dressed in the guise of La Catrina, a feminine skeleton dressed in a feathered hat originally drawn by the Mexican cartoonist Jose Guadalupe.

Again, the origins are all from a joke. A satirical character who represents indigenous people who have forgotten their roots.

She’s now the face of the celebration, a reminder that no matter what you wear, who you are or how much money you have, we all end up dead in the end.

They continue until the early morning, until the candles have burned down and their voices are worn out. Well, almost. It turns out the dead are good confidants.

YOLANDA: Like you know, Mary got pregnant because of the priest and, you know, they had the baby. So they say all these things with importance. It’s a tradition, people, people laugh so much because the people who are saying, well, the truth about what happened, they wear masks and they wear, uh, costumes.

HARRIET: Skeletons are all over the place, but not in your closet.

YOLANDA: And nobody really knows who saying it. You know, they keep on talking and people are listening to all the, the things that they didn’t know

HARRIET: More and more to me, the Mexican way seemed the right way to honor the dead. Maybe the rest of us are just doing it wrong?

[Song playing]

MA PREM NEELAM: It was very near to disappear with the Spanish coming. In that time, there was a signs there was like a knowledge from the cosmos and from all the dimensions of a human being, very scientific.

HARRIET: As other cultures move in to embrace El Eia de Los Muertos as a global celebration, ma prem neelam wants to preserve the day and keep it.

MA PREM NEELAM: But the Spanish, they burn huge libraries, they hurt a lot of people because they didn’t want this knowledge to continue, but they want to impose the Christianity. And then, and another vision from what Cosmos and life is.

HARRIET: When the Spanish arrived, they imposed their own science, language and Catholic religion on the region, beginning in the late 1500s.

The Zapotecs already had a written language, one of the earliest in Mesoamerica. They had a dual calendar system and advanced agricultural techniques and irrigation beyond the Europeans that sustained a population of 500,000 people.

This invasion meant that indigenous communities fled to the mountains and many were killed by disease. The Spanish began to introduce their own celebrations. Some of which would replace ancient traditional holidays.

But what happened with the day of the dead was something different. The Spanish imposed Catholic celebrations, all saints day and all souls day, and rather smartly, the indigenous people just adjusted their month long holiday to match the three day Catholic tradition.

MA PREM NEELAM: Um, not only, some form, some body that is going to die and then everything is finished. What is true can never be destroyed, you know, what is true never dies.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: Like Oktoberfest and Halloween, the day of the dead is becoming a global export. Near worldwide recognition of the festival may force the celebration to change, again.

FRANCISCO: One has to be very, very careful about the way that we depict the day of the dead.

HARRIET: Francisco Berzuna curated an exhibition on death, sexuality, and mortality in Mexico. It first opened in Oaxaca city.

FRANCISCO: What’s interesting of the day of the being Oaxaca is that because it’s a tourist season, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on what death conceptually actually means for the people in Mexico and for people who are traveling.

HARRIET: Francisco’s work is a look into the country’s complex relationship with life, sexuality, death, and the afterlife.

FRANCISCO: A lot of the times and that’s very tragic, you see exhibitions in Oaxaca making it absolutely folkloric, eh, in order for the celebration to be consumed as an experience for, uh, tourists, eh, with no regard to how the local population live it or have lived it

HARRIET: Merchandising and selling the day of the dead is a little odd to think about, but it is happening.

Fake government created graves for tourists to gawk at and the expensive events that none of the locals can even afford. These things must be difficult for one of the poorest regions in the country.

FRANCISCO: In Mexico, it happens something interesting. And is that the day of the dead has to become part of the nation building project in Mexico.

HARRIET: The nation building project is exactly what it sounds like. The buzz around the day of the dead has exploded beyond the borders of the country. And it has grown into a worldwide icon.

One example of this is the potential twinning of Oaxaca city with Riverside, California. Riverside is the home of Coachella.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: Rumors of the day of the dead version of Coachella in Oaxaca are already beginning to spread among the living. With the incoming globalization of the festival in mind, I talked to Ilan Stavans, a Mexican writer and cultural critic about the struggle between the old festival and what a new version of the day of the dead might look like

ILAN: Mexicans and Oaxacans keep their culture alive through storytelling.

It is the stories that are told during the day of the dead from the grandparents to the children. Folklore in Mexico is popular culture. In the United States, popular culture is the movies, it’s television.

There is a wonderful chapter written by the novel prize winner Octovio Paz and he says that whereas Americans drink in order to get rowdy, Mexicans drink in order to forget, in order to be closer to their most basic instincts and to be engaged with their past and their future in a way that has nothing to do with a resistance to routine or to normal life.

HARRIET: That vision of the festivity is integral to understanding how Mexicans see life and death and change

ILAN: Oaxaca and Mexican culture are always under threat. If you take away that threat Mexican culture in Oaxacan culture in particular would probably disappear because they are reactive rather than active. The challenge is how do you survive with that presence in order to remain loyal to your core?

Eh, that survival is found in the details that one does in every moment in life.

[Song playing]

NEIL: Government issued fake tombstones is also something that

ANDRÉS: that’s a sentence

NEIL: you have to start merchandising at death. Is that that’s the line, right?

ANDRÉS: Yeah. I mean, I, I have mixed feelings about it because on one hand, yes, you know, normalizing or kind of like he says standardizing the day of the dead, there’s a kind of sadness to that.

But on the other hand, there’s the fact that it connects with people from everywhere in a way.

NEIL: Yeah and this is the conundrum. Isn’t it?

HARRIET: I mean, I did have a chat with someone and they turned up to this celebration and they’ve gone for the past 27 years.

ANDRÉS: Wow.

HARRIET: And they had one experience talking about a dead loved one with some guy, a grave, and they spoke for like three hours.

And then from that point onwards, she just went back every single year. So allowing it to be open. I mean, it helps people, I suppose, in a way.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: Well, certain things end up becoming universalized. Like Halloween, people in Spain are going out and dressing up and they have no connection to the friggin Salem witches or anything.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: I guess the thing that you do have to know is or what makes it richer is if you know where it comes from.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: You have a sense of that route and then you can, you know, turn it into this modern thing

NEIL: Without, without losing anything.

ANDRÉS: Yeah. I don’t know

HARRIET: If anything, whenever you speak to anyone, all they want to do is tell you about what they do and how they connect with their dead and then hope that you’ve got up an altar in November next year.

Like are you coming to Mexico, you can come and join us. You know, I’m going to have a whole family dinner, do you want to sit with us? Like there’s no, there’s no idea that they don’t want you to come and enjoy it, at all. If anything, it’s the opposite.

ANDRÉS: Right. It’s not like it’s something that’s closed.

HARRIET: No, not at all.

ANDRÉS: It’s a question of how you’re coming into it.

HARRIET: Yeah, I think so

NEIL: During the course of making this Harriet, every, every single interview you did, you come out of the room and you’re like, I’ve got another place to stay in Oaxaca. I think I’m going, I’m gonna go.

ANDRÉS: You have to go.

HARRIET: Yeah, true.

[Laughter]

[Song playing]

NEIL: We’ll be back after the break with a break from the traditional, a real life folkloric tale. A witch born of a forgotten Oaxacan tradition. See you in a bit.

HARRIET: While Oaxaca tends to be a relatively calm area of Mexico, in reality, the country is at war, a savage drug war.

19 out of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world are in Mexico. In 2019, nearly 36,000 homicides were recorded. As truly horrifying as these numbers are, they might bring home why the country both now and in history has an acceptance of death like no other.

Here’s Francisco again.

FRANCISCO: Well, I mean, there’s  hundreds of people who are killed every day in this country since the so-called war on cartels.

HARRIET: Just on June the seventh, 2020, 112 murders were recorded in just 24 hours.

FRANCISCO: And these levels of violence are very difficult to explain. And a lot of communities live under the terror of drug cartels and organized crime

HARRIET: Living in this reality, discussing death with people who live in this place and have a celebration of death is tough to understand. And Francisco has a similar concern,

FRANCISCO: Something of this, of the way that the celebration is currently carried on though, does disturb me a bit.

Death is not something that is trivial. Of course we’re all going to go through it.

But I do find it a bit uncomfortable that, um, we have a, we, we have these, and now I use the word glorification or acceptance of death. It’s wonderful that we have a spiritual connection with those who have, uh, deceased, but it’s also quite disturbing that we have such a trivial relationship with, eh, those who have been killed, but it’s certainly something that no one should ever get used to.

HARRIET: Cartel violence has changed things and it’s incorporated, controversially, another tradition shrouded in death. The cult of Santa Muerte has become iconic within the cartel world. The cartel don’t pray to a God or to the dead. They pray to death herself.

Previously Santa Muerte didn’t have a day, but now many followers are celebrating her during the day of the dead celebrations.

ILAN: Santa Muerte is a very powerful icon that the presents itself like a ghost

HARRIET: Ilan Stavans tells us a little more about how this icon of this deity is popular culture.

ILAN: Santa Muerte plays a very important role in a, in the drug cartel culture. Santa Muerte has also become the subject of songs of a kind of diatribe in popular culture about how death is inevitable.

And there’s nothing that you can do in the face of it. Embrace Santa Muerte the moment it arrives.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: The link to the day of the dead, where Santa Muerte is concerned is a difficult one for people of Mexico who want to respect the dead. They would seem that she has been folded into this celebration regardless.

ILAN: Mexicans are incredibly joyful and they respond to catastrophe with joy. Every generation expresses itself through the same patterns, sort of the same icons through the same symbols, but in different ways, adding, infusing it with its own view of life, with its own connection with what the world is doing at that point.

Eh, there is this sense that the heart of the country is in Oaxaca, that the, that the survival of Oaxaca in spite of everything is also the survival of Mexico.

HARRIET: I wanted to find someone a real recent and personal representation of change. I wanted to find someone who had redefined it, shaped it and made it all theirs. Something positive and I did.

This song is Laabe Muxhe.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: Composed by Santiago Bernal and sung in indigenous language of Zapotec. It’s by La Bruja De Texcoco, the witch of Texcoco, and it is sung from the perspective of a beautiful muxe.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: In a small pocket of Oaxaca Juchitán de Zaragoza is the only place that can truly understand what a muxe is. A third gender who holds a different role in the community. Not women’s roles, not men’s, but their own.

Muxes have lived in these communities around Oaxaca since pre Hispanic times. Before the arrival of Christianity, in the Zapotec culture, you could find up to five different genders, but gender isn’t really the right word. They were societal roles within the community based on the different contributions that you would make, rather than just being male or female.

And a muxe was one of them.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: In the 1950s, they began to dress as women. Octavio Mendoza Anario draws his femininity and musical power from Zapotec culture and the muxes.

[Song playing]

[La Bruja speaking in spanish]

HARRIET: I spoke to La Bruja through her translator Marla.

LA BRUJA (speaking through interpreter): It all started when she joined a music band, they were a band specifically playing cello music. And, and this was done in Texcoco.

HARRIET: Texcoco is a small city outside of Mexico City with a huge Aztec history.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: This song is called Te De Malvon. In the video, Octavio is sitting in a pub, a man in a cowboy hat, a long beard and a horse shoe scribbled on his shirt, playing the violin.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: He draws long gold licked acrylic nails across his face, removing his hat. Long hair falls to his shoulders, colors fill the screen as the hands remove the red shirt, revealing a golden dress, pink lips and a brush of eyeshadow. The witch of Texcoco was born.

For Octavio, what started as a night partying with a band, ended up in a journey finding his femininity in Mexico as a transgender female.

[Song playing]

LA BRUJA (speaking through interpreter): During the times when she was playing with this band, they arrived at a party and in this party, there was a shaman, a healer. This Shaman looked at her hands and told her that those hands were a woman’s hands. And that’s the first time that she felt respectable. You know, because before that, everybody would refer to her as a queer or in the speakable way.

He said that, you know, those were the hands of a witch.

HARRIET: The hands of a witch. The band played and at the show, a girl in the crowd began to have convulsions. The shaman encouraged La Bruja to help.

LA BRUJA (speaking through interpreter): He asked Bruja to fix it. So she started playing and together with other musicians. She started playing her violin and the girl instantly started getting better.

HARRIET: The night had ended, the fiesta died down. It was as late as 3:00 AM when Octavia, the Shaman and the woman who had convulsions set off into the nearby forest to discover what all this really meant to her.

LA BRUJA (speaking through interpreter): And the shaman asked bruja to introduce herself and he said, I am La Bruja de Texcoco

ANDRÉS: All of the bits of the story give you a lot of different checha. Like there’s, there’s the fact of transitioning from, from man to woman, transitioning from life to death. Like there’s a, there’s a weird echo there that’s really interesting about how you leave one person behind and you find another person there’s that.

Then there’s the intersection of history and folklore and the past with the forward looking towards the future and living very much in the now and kind of tying all that together. Like, as I was listening, my brain was just like, like a washing machine of different things and different ideas and different feelings.

HARRIET: When you Ivan Stavans is talking about younger people taking bits of what they want from the past and bringing it into the present so that they can almost project it into what they want it to be. But a lot of the time they don’t actually connect to the present,

ANDRÉS: It just becomes a postcard.

HARRIET: It just becomes a postcard or something that you do with your family or your grandparents.

And I think this is her taking what she wants from different areas of Mexico and making it her own and making a statement and turning it into something positive for the present moment.

ANDRÉS: It’s like the counterbalance is this idea of like standardizing the day of the dead for all of Mexico, everybody does the day of the dead in the same way.

And rather being like, no, we are Mexico. We are this mess of different places and different people, but that doesn’t have to be one singular thing. It can be something new.

[Song playing]

LA BRUJA (speaking through interpreter): Bruja, after that moment, she noticed that she’s been helding back and that she needed to break her own limits and her own set of mind to become who she wanted to be. You can be anything or anyone that you choose

HARRIET: Before this moment, Octavio, as he was then never identified as trans. But after walking to the woods with the Sharman, she emerged as La Bruja de Texcoco.

Her music is a combination of modern and traditional Mexican music.

LA BRUJA (speaking through interpreter): She relates the storytelling to her grandma. It’s a tradition that comes in every family in the country, but especially like in the middle of Mexico. And that it’s important in Mexican tradition to pass the stories through music.

HARRIET: She uses magic as a way of reconnecting to her grandparents to a past and to Oaxaca.

By continuing to make traditional sounds for the younger generation, her music much like the day of the dead, revels in deities, folkloric tradition, witches, mermaids and death.

LA BRUJA (speaking through interpreter): Specifically the day of the dead, uh, it’s an important moment for her. It has meant in a different way to deal with death. And that tradition also has softened a little bit, the idea of things ending.

And it’s more about a cycle, but as a woman is something different. It’s something that it doesn’t stop. So it’s more of a path of a transition. She’s always looking for ways to evolve. She’s very much aware that in Mexico it’s a pretty much violent place to live in. And it’s a violent place for women and especially against  trans man.

HARRIET: Violence exists all through Mexico on a terrifying scale, especially for the, let’s say untraditional. The witch is trying to make a much higher visibility for the group.

But how real was all this magic for La Bruja?

LA BRUJA (speaking through interpreter): That as a witch and a healer, well, she totally believes in magic because she experienced it. It’s essential for her.

HARRIET: Born out of a ritual was a witch, a new way of living, exploring her sexuality and using this opportunity to try and make the different more visible.

To begin to make it more accepted.

LA BRUJA (speaking through interpreter): To find out that she and her experience is an influence for other came to her like a bucket of ice cold water

HARRIET: Modernity meets tradition, traditional music meets modern tones, stories from folk law written into songs, inspiration taken from the muxes. With an aim to bring something even more to the people than just music.

LA BRUJA (speaking through interpreter): Bruja has a politic agenda that opens doors for other trans women or other queer kids that feel more secure about coming out and walk on the streets and feel safe.

HARRIET: In Mexico, mythology and folklore is popular music. So for La Bruja, using this to make a statement about gender violence and politics is really smart.

[Thunderstorm]

HARRIET: Tradition isn’t always easy for minorities and it certainly doesn’t have all the answers. It’s filled with difficulties and strife, but remembering the past, traditions and folklore inspires and empowers.

The day of the dead, although a celebration of life, when it comes to the reality of death, it’s not always easy.

There’s a lot to learn from the past of Oaxaca, but part of it is looking at tradition and knowing when to leave it behind. The day of the dead included, looking in tradition is a way of exploring new ways of seeing life, seeing the worst parts too. Addressing them and evolving.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: And Oaxaca, a place which has historically prayed to the dead, had also surprisingly embraced a third gender. Sex and death are two sure fire topics in Oaxaca and could be part of the reason that this cultural hub in the heart of Mexico is being looked to for change.

In rolling with the punches, the day of the dead has infiltrated international popular culture, but in Oaxaca, it is constantly still changing, morphing and highlighting a past of Mexico, a political statement within itself.

[Song playing]

NEIL: In order to kind of not forget the dead, you make them more visible. You remember them, you make them more visible in your own life and that way you don’t forget them. That’s the good part of that tradition. La Bruja, taking the same thing, making what she is more visible is going to help.

HARRIET: It makes it more accepted in general.

I mean, the only way that you can really make something better is by making it more accepted and the way you make people feel more accepted is by making them feel comfortable to be what they are. It takes a lot for people to kind of listen and if the masses start listening, eventually it does affect change.

ANDRÉS: There’s this predominance of femininity in all of the characters.

HARRIET: I agree. It’s these like diatribes of female characters of death and femininity that, you know, people look to death and they find a woman.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

NEIL: Death is a lady.

HARRIET: Like Santa Muerte, La Llorona, like a crying woman bringing out her child from a river, Santa Muerte who’s the woman of death. So as I’ve seen it, it’s like femininity really plays a role within death and how people look to it.

I don’t know whether that’s a comfort thing, whether a woman’s standing on the other side of the darkness is more comforting than it being a man.

NEIL: You come from one, go back to one.

HARRIET: Yeah, you go back to one.

ANDRÉS: Right

NEIL: So that’s the, you know, and so it’s the thing, that’s where I think I’m going. This nice, big cuddle somewhere. It’s true, it is a comfort. And even on a base weird like lizard brain level, it’s like…

ANDRÉS: Do you feel it’s also connected though to the fact that in our society, we allow more leeway in terms of emotions within the feminine sphere?

NEIL: Yeah, of course, because it is, it’s the ultimate point, isn’t it? It’s the ultimate situation.

Imagine if you, you know, said your goodbyes and it was like a big hairy dude

ANDRÉS: Just like dude playing a PlayStation,

NEIL: Yeah and like steel toe-capped boots.

ANDRÉS: Wearing a maga hat.

NEIL: Yeah, you don’t want that, you know, you’re born feminine, you die as feminine.

ANDRÉS: That’s interesting.

NEIL: Makes sense to me. I don’t know why.

ANDRÉS: It does. There’s there’s a, it feels natural. But I do, I did notice it, that, you know, when you split it into these different characters, all of them turn into females as well. You know?

NEIL: Yeah. Yeah.

ANDRÉS: It’s fraught at every point, right? And instead of trying to shirk away from that, you embrace the fact that this is complex. This is a mess, we don’t really know and death is a mystery. Life is a mystery too. So is gender. So, uh, let’s dance.

[Laughter]

[Song playing]

NEIL: On your next spirit searching trip to the heart of Mexico be sure to check out these five saved pins.

ANDRÉS: Number one, join Yolanda, her xoloitzcuintli and the whole family dead or alive around the dinner table at Casa Frida guest house and stay the evening and explore the city of Oaxaca.

NEIL: Number two. The caves around Oaxaca are a dangerous place. Many explorers have been trapped by water in this labyrinth of rock for two weeks and some, forever. But if you want to dip your toe in the shallows, Tierraventura tours take you on a two hour hike through the caves and across the cactus filled deserts outside Oaxaca.

ANDRÉS: Number three, if you arrived during the day of the dead and want to spend an evening in a graveyard lighting candles, placing flowers and speaking to people about death, visit Panteon Viejo Xoxocotlan.

The best place to be at this time of year.

NEIL: Number four, take a trip to Mitla, the resting place of Zapotecs souls and climb to an elevation of 4,055 feet where you can take in the beautiful mosaics, the ancient paintings and explore the tombs that exist below these ruins.

ANDRÉS: Number five, tucked away in Oaxaca 7ou can find a load of mezcalerias to wet your lips or as Oaxacans say, kiss the cup. But if you would like to taste the good stuff, go to la Mezcaloteca for a wide variety of mezcal from across the region in just one place. It’s also run by the wife of an ex classmate of mine. So say hi. Hi, Nick.

[Song playing]

NEIL: That’s it for this week. Be sure to rate and review us wherever you listen to Passport and you can find us on all social media at PassportPodcast. Next week, we keep things haunted with a story of how one night in a hotel in Colorado changed the horror world. Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, and the people still haunted and influenced by The Shining.

We’ll see you then.

[Song playing]

NEIL: This week’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Harriet Davies and edited by Harriet and myself.

Huge thanks to Yolanda Garcia, Gabriel Mendoza, Francisco Berzunzar, Ma Prem Leelam, Ilan Stavans, La Bruja de Texcoco and Marla Ylenia and the many, many other people Harriet interviewed for the show. We’ll put appropriate links to all of those people in our show notes.

Our theme music is by Nick Turner with music by Enemy Silk Den, Monpalisir, Lobo Loco, Roland, The Jingle Punks, Auracle, Trol La Aurora, Radio Jarocho, Barneby Billows, Music Box, Enriqueta Cerda Mendez and of course La Bruja De Texcoco.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.

Eliza Engel is our production assistant. Hi Eliza

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari, and Avi Glijansky always smell of marigolds. They also executive produce the show, which is hosted by myself and a man who always sees spirits after a night on the mezcal, Andrés Bartos.

We’ll see you in the next place.

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.