We were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a dusty one-lane road heading up to the hillside town of San Agustin Etla. Vehicles around us were packed with happy revelers drinking in their seats, some in masks and face paint, heading up to or down from one of the liveliest Dia de los Muertos parties in Mexico.
This tiny community about 12 miles north from the center of Oaxaca, the capital of Oaxaca state, is known across Mexico and among foreign adventure-seekers for its Day of the Dead comparsas, rolling crowds of musicians and costumed characters.
The Etla municipality was founded in 1583, and its Day of the Dead comparsas have been celebrated "since time immemorial," as one local newspaper put it (link in Spanish). The bands and costumed revelers (representing archetypal figures such as the Dead Husband, the Devil, the Priest, and so on) move from house to house, playing music, dancing and eating.
Thus, they honor the dead through the living.
At this hour, the comparsas in Etla were still working their way through the town's barrios, everyone carrying cans of beer, bottles of tequila and gourd cups of mezcal. Adding to the sense of festive chaos, firecrackers were exploding into the chilly sky in every direction.
From the public cemetery parties in towns such as Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacan to Mixquic in the rural southern end of Mexico City, the holiday is an all-night social event in many parts of Mexico, marrying ancient traditions for the departed with the modern desire for a wild party.
For visitors and foreigners such as those in our crew, it was difficult to resolve the tension between the desire to observe a deeply rooted tradition and the superficial view that comes with being an outsider.
Amandine Dubois, a 33-year-old language teacher who lives in the city of Oaxaca, said she couldn't fully understand the complexity of the Day of the Dead comparsa ritual in San Agustin Etla but that she could appreciate the festivities as those around her did: a reason to dance and celebrate life.
"In the end, it's a very intimate ritual, so you end up feeling a bit on the outside," she said. "You can tell this isn't a one-night thing, it's a tradition that is prepared for all year. So in that sense, you have to question your role."
I asked the fellow pictured above for his name and where he lived as he rested at a hot-dog stand. He stared at me (I presumed) in silence, until grabbing my hand for a hello. Then he whispered in my ear: "I go by Chucky."
And the dancing and drinking went on well into the early morning. As we rode away, firecrackers and blaring trumpets echoed down the hillsides after us.
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: A comparsa dancer who identified himself as "Chucky" rests between dances and drinks in San Agustin Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico, Nov. 2, 2011. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times