By the glow of illuminated tombs, we watch a series of Catrinas pass by in aristocratic dress. They are captivating as they sway to mariachi music. The Catrinas scan the crowd with piercing eyes and skeleton faces, swaths of red embroidered fabric exaggerating each movement. They are icons of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It’s exciting to experience this window into Mexican culture, but it makes me wonder about my own place in these traditions.
In the city of Oaxaca, we celebrate the holiday in a cemetery and there are ofrendas (offerings) to commemorate those who have passed away. Death doesn’t so much linger in the air, but rather it sweeps the streets of the city. People of all ages paint themselves as skeletons to look like the Catrinas.
Death is welcomed as part of the weekend’s festivities, but it isn’t feared so much as celebrated. The cemetery buzzes with voices and excitement. Families gather around graves and toast to their loved ones, so much so that the clinking of beer bottles blends with the mariachi music and the atmosphere is intoxicating. We find a dark patch of the cemetery, squeezing between graves, and relax in the open space.
It’s like this iconic study abroad moment, immersed in my host country and completely content. I’m waiting for somebody to sneak a picture and slap it on the front of a brochure. ‘Isn’t it amazing,’ I tell my friends, ‘how Mexicans just get it. We’re so scared of death that we lock it up in graveyards or watch from a comfortable distance in war movies or slasher films’
But Mexicans understand that you can’t have life without death. What would it mean to be human, after all, if we didn’t know that someday we’d no longer be here? It’s like yin and yang, one can’t exist without the other.
My brain suddenly pulls me away from the situation and instead I’m thinking that I have only just over a month left in Mexico. I picture myself back in the U.S. and it’s almost impossible to reconcile this image with the cemetery in Oaxaca.
Julia starts telling a story, and I snap back to attention. We shift between English and Spanish. It would be so simple, I think, for the Mexican slang—just starting to feel familiar on my tongue—to disappear from my lexicon altogether.
It makes me realize the temporality of this moment. Though we are easily intoxicated by Día de los Muertos and feel connected to these centuries-old traditions, it’s not my culture. I’m here almost by chance, aren’t I? There are a million reasons I could have spent my semester someplace else. Compared to the yin and yang of this holiday, I seem more and more like a visitor among the tombs.
I’ve reached that moment, in other words, where I’ve begun to question what studying abroad will ultimately mean to me. Straight-forward questions like: “When will I come back to Mexico again?” “How often will I message my new friends?” And harder ones: “Will I still get along with my friends when I get back, have I changed?”
I can already picture being back during winter break—friends and family will ask me how my trip was. Some will sit down for a full hour as I reminisce—they’ll awkwardly pass me a tissue if I start to cry—while others are only asking as routine. But the overarching theme of their questions will be, “What did you take away from Mexico and what have you left there?”
The truth is that I’m not sure. But just because I’m not sure doesn’t mean that this experience hasn’t been incredible.
Derek Siegel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and is studying abroad in Puebla, Mexico. He is writing a monthly column about his abroad experience.