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  • By Jerry Ann Fenter

Life and Death in Mexico

I just got back from Oaxaca City in southern Mexico. I've wanted to travel there since I first read about it years ago. Then a friend of mine, Jacqie Wallen, from Washington DC, heard me talking about how much fun it would be to go there. Of course she turned to me and said, "So let's go!". We did. And what a trip it was. I was flying from Portland and Jacqie was flying from Washington, DC. The flights were long but comfortable on Aero Mexico.

Met some great people on the planes. I was so excited when we got to Oaxaca.

Painted skull Oaxaca

Being in the city of Oaxaca was an experience I've never had before. We went there to see the festivities of Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). What an eye opening and mind-blowing experience! During this week the entire city explodes with color, flowers , especially marigolds ("cempasuchil"), with their sweet strong smell, altars, random and organized celebrations and delicious food and drink. The city specializes in Moles...chocolate sauce over crepes, enchiladas or pretty much anything you'd want. It is also known for its famous and strong Mescal...lots of tasting bars around the city. But even better then the food, the hearts of the Oaxacan people are filled with love, friendship, tricks, laughter, fun and one big crazy celebration! Our hotel and it's staff were great. We stayed at Hotel Casa de la Tia Tere. The rooms and the pool were comfortable and cozy. They were just what we'd hoped for. I had a HUGE fan in my room that about blew me out of my bed...but it kept me cool and happy. The hotel was filled with guests from all over the world. I was feeling very cosmopolitan during our stay there and just in the city itself. The temperatures were warm during the day but very cool at night. Perfect weather for sightseeing.

Hotel Casa de la Tia Tere

In Mexico this is the time of the year that the living all join together to rejoice in the return of their dead ancestors. (This can include relatives, friends, bosses, animals and even famous people they may have never met). Anything can happen! Color and art are everywhere. Every store, residence, hotel, workplace, church and private home each create their own original and amazing altar. The alters are made with care and hard work. They are wrapped with everything beautiful, special and colorful. Offerings are added. Food, fruits, candy, desserts, skulls, bones, milagros, Catholic images, pictures of loved ones, bread (pan de meurto), chocolate, nuts and even lollipops. The dead of course are very thirsty so glasses of water, beer, tequila, mescal, Coke and other soft and hard drinks are on the altar for the dead's enjoyment. The sweet smell of marigolds in the air will draw the dead to the food and drink for them to enjoy. The dead and the living together celebrate old times, friends, shared experiences and the fun in living itself.

Small Altar, Oaxaca

Parades pop up at every intersection and corner. The parades (procession of souls) begin with the children. They walk together in every kind of costume that can be imagined...many devils, skeletons, monsters, nuns, TV heroes, cartoon figures, tiny creatures, Star Wars characters and animals of all kinds. The children throw candy to the crowd who in return thank them with lots of noise and cheering. Huge Papier Mache figures, brightly clothed, tower above the tops of the buildings, all different and placed on almost every street. The figures light up after dark and loom over the laughing crowds. Magic is everywhere, in galleries, restaurants and even on the beautiful cracked colorful surfaces of the buildings. The graffiti made me laugh, caught me by surprise and of course sometimes shocked me! It made me so happy to be alive. The whole thing is One Big Party!

Scary bride being carried on the shoulders of friends

At night in Oaxaca I could feel the presence of my dead family members (especially my grandma and favorite uncle) right next to me and enjoying all of the excitement. I spied my mom and dad and my old cat Jingles hiding in an altar. My Aunt Elaine and my Uncle Duke sat and chatted for a bit in the seats beside me at the Jaguar Cafe. I cried and laughed for my newly lost friends, Ed Hunt and Jerry Shultz. I invited all of them, family, friends, so many missed pets and lots and lots of interesting strangers to be with me that night in Oaxaca. All of us, family and friends, the living and the dead drank a few toasts to life and death and laughed and cried about old times. Before the night was over each of us smoked a giant Mexican cigar. We remembered the past, celebrated the present and looked forward to when we would all be together again. All together we all watched the fireworks. We were not afraid of anything.

Giant skeleton sculpture on the sidewalk

A special thanks to my live friend Jacqie who is always an inspiration. She is a feast for the eyes and the soul.

One of the biggest altars at the old library in Oaxaca

NOTE: I will be posting and sending out information about prices and descriptions of my TWO workshops this year around the first of January. "The Magic and Colors of Mexico", in Melaque, Mexico and "An Irish Adventure in Watercolor" in The Burren, Ireland. ( details will be posted on the workshop tab) Also check out my paintings on this site!! Always feel free to e-mail me at with questions or purchases.

So....adios. Off to paint.


PS A related quote that I love. In the spirit of the Day of the Dead...

"Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless."

Paul Bowles from the book The Sheltering Sky

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