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Documenting Day Of The Dead

Grade school procession in the Oaxaca Zocalo
Denis Defibaugh
Grade school procession in the Oaxaca Zocalo

Photographer Denis Defibaugh often finds himself on the lecture circuit this time of year. He's based in New York, where he teaches at Rochester Institute of Technology; but when we spoke on the phone, he was in Topeka, Kan., for an exhibit of his work.

Defibaugh's area of focus is Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos — a two-day celebration in Mexico that starts today. You might recognize the stereotypical skulls, flowers and vibrant crafts that typify the holiday, which is also observed, but to a lesser degree, in the U.S. and Latin America.

In Oaxaca, it's "probably the most important holiday of the year," explains Defibaugh, who spent a good the festivities there.

"It's not anything like Halloween that tends to be kind of ghoulish," he says. "It's really ... a celebration of family, a celebration of the past, a celebration of ancestors — and bringing everyone together."

On the phone he recalls a few beautiful stories and several simple encounters — like men in a corn field drinking "the worst mescal," singing and reading the Bible and eating tamales: "You never know what kind of situation you're going to be in, but it's always a great situation."

Singing in the corn fields,  San Andres Zabache
/ Courtesy of Denis Defibaugh
Courtesy of Denis Defibaugh
Singing in the corn fields, San Andres Zabache

He has spent the years wandering in cemeteries late at night and through markets with artisan candle makers and bread bakers. He's especially interested in the comparsa — a procession that sometimes includes a role-playing dance, in which a wife dances with her ailing husband as if to save his life.

Defibaugh has also found himself in more intimate settings: in homes, where families build altars to their ancestors — welcoming deceased relatives into the house, for example, with their favorite earthly meals and possessions.

One early morning, Defibaugh was eating pan de muerto and drinking hot chocolate at the home of Narciso Hernandez Luis, a beer and soda distributor in Mitla, the city of the dead.

"It was about 6 o'clock in the morning, and he wanted to tell us about how his brother had returned to the altar [he had built]. That was another amazing morning because ... all of a sudden the light comes streaming through the hallway into his house," Defibaugh recalls. "I felt like it was his brother's spirit."

Narciso Hernandez Luis, in the light of his brother, Mitla, Oaxaca
/ Courtesy of Denis Defibaugh
Courtesy of Denis Defibaugh

In American culture, there's no real equivalent to this holiday, in which communities are encouraged to both mourn and celebrate the dead all at once.

"I met this one gentleman whose wife had just passed away," Defibaugh says. "And he was so sad; they had been together a long, long time. But then his friends came up — and they had guitars, and within minutes they were all singing and laughing ... and his whole demeanor changed in a matter of minutes."

In the past, Defibaugh has called this body of work Family Ties Do Not Die. Which seems to be the whole point: It's called Day of the Dead — but those who have passed never really leave us.

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