Sharing an Indigenous Mixtec Día de los Muertos Celebration in Madera

ACTA - Posted on 06 December 2016

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El Día de los Muertos, on November 1 and 2, is widely celebrated in California by people of Mexican descent as part of a sacred ritual to remember and commune with deceased loved ones. There are many regional and contextual variations with different types of celebratory activities taking place in homes, cemeteries, art centers, churches and other venues.

ACTA staff visited the unique event hosted by La Communidad Oaxacaqueña de Madera (the Oaxacan Community of Madera), which organized a series of workshops about the Mixtec traditions surrounding el Día de los Muertos culminating in a public celebration which was supported by ACTA’s Living Cultures Grants Program. The workshops provided instruction and history including how to grow a field of cempasúchiles (marigolds); cooking demonstrations for making dulces de calabaza (sweet squash) and camotes (sweet potatoes); and home altar preparations.

The event took place on a grape vineyard in rural Madera, in the San Joaquin Valley, where thousands of indigenous Mixtec immigrants make up a major part of farm labor in the state. About 500 people attended the event which included a large community altar, adorned with traditional foodstuffs to be shared by the visiting spirits of the deceased—pan de muerto (bread for Day of the Dead), fruits, mole, and sodas. Juana Gómez, the well-known host of the popular Mixteco/Spanish transnational radio program “La Hora Mixteca” on Radio Bilingüe hosted the event. Doña Juana explained that this is an event she has been organizing for over fifteen years in an effort to create a space for her community to come together to practice the important rituals held in honor of deceased loved ones. Back in Oaxaca, people make altars at home and visit the cemeteries to adorn gravesites, but in California, she has led her community in adapting to new circumstances where they are separated from their ancestral lands and can create new formats for cultural continuity, such as this event she co-organized to accommodate the large scale Mixteco community participation.

Visiting musicians Jorge Hernández, with wife Judith, and sons Alexis and Yael of the group Itandiyoo, from Santiago Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca, Mexico, played traditional chilena rhythms on acoustic violin, jarana mixteca, and guitar. The crowd relished the communal meal of homemade chicken with mole, rice, beans, tamales, pan de muerto and champurado (a Mexican hot chocolate and corn beverage). The fiesta continued late into the evening culminating with a social dance with an electric chilena band.

Here are some links featuring other coverage of this event:

Radio Bilingue’s report by Juan Santiago includes a wonderful audio sampling of the event:

Vida en el Valle’s story by Elsa Mejia:

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Día De Los Muertos


Altar constructed by la Communidad Oaxacaqueña de Madera. Preparations began with planting a field of marigolds in late July to make the large arches covered in blossoms. The arch shape is a common regional style that is believed to attract the spirits of the deceased to the altar for the feast.


Detail of the altar showing a variety of home baked breads and types of pan de muerto made especially for November 1 and 2.


Detail of the altar with fruits, flowers and candles.


A regional Oaxacan type of pan de muerto includes small effigies representing the spirits of the departed. Other regional foodstuffs here include homemade mole and tamales.


Juana Gomez takes the mic to welcome the crowd to the event and introduce the visiting musical group Itandiyoo from Santiago Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca.


Teacher Judith Minerva Salazar Carasco and her son Yael Jairo Hernández Salazar play traditional chilena music along with their family members.


Teacher Jorge Mario Hernández López of the group Itandiyoo has spent a lifetime learning and documenting the regional music and dance traditions of the Juxtlahuacha region of the state of Oaxaca. 


Dancers Yenedit Valencia and Galo Mendez from the Centro Binacional para el Desarroyo Indígena Oaxaqueña Grupo Folklórico Xiadani del Valle in Fresno perform the traditional jarabe mixteco.


The homemade traditional foods of mole, tamales, rice, and beans were served as the sun set.


Johanna Vázquez and her husband, Edgar Vázquez served over 400 meals for the feast from the outdoor kitchen.


The feast set up included large canopies, tables and chairs overlooking the vineyard.