Stephanie Friede

Weather, Ritual, and Día de los Muertos in Juchitán

October 30, 2015

My uncle’s name was Cesar. He was a singer and pretty well known around here. He died and was buried, and on the day before this Todos Santos, this Día de los Muertos, when I was in Mexico City, I dreamt that my uncle Cesar came to see me.

Mi hijo, my son, I am lost,” he said. I looked at Cesar and told him not to worry, that I would take him back to Juchitán with me on the bus. When we got close, I pointed out the window, “Look, uncle, we are here.” We walked from the bus station downtown, and Cesar said to me, “I am so hungry.” So we sat down below the Municipal building where they sell garnachas, tlayudas, and tacos. “I am so hungry,” he said again, and I pushed my plate over to him, “Eat, uncle, eat.”

Mi hijo, I don’t know where I live, will you take me to my house?” “Uncle, you live all the way in La Ventosa,” I said, but he asked again, “Please, take me.” We walked from downtown to the bus stop by the highway, where the buses leave to go to La Ventosa. Once Cesar had got on the bus, I told him I was going to get off. “Listen Cesar, when you get off the bus in La Ventosa, someone there will recognize you, and they will take you home.”

It was such a strange dream, so I called my mom up to tell her about it.

Mi hijo, today is Cesar’s first Todos Santos,” she said. “Your cousins, you know they converted to Protestantism, and they never built an altar for your uncle on the first year after his death—they never did Xandú Yaa for him, they never placed candles out for him, there was nothing for him. Your uncle’s soul,” she hesitated, “is probably lost.”

My mom rushed off the phone, “Listen, I need to call your aunt. I have to tell her about your dream, so that they will put something out for him tonight.

— Gubidxa Guerrero, Centro Cultural Herón Ríos (November 1, 2014)


A palpable change occurs in Juchitán in late October. Not only does the town celebrate Todos Santos (the Day of the Dead and referred to as Xandú in Zapotec), but on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the seasons also change. Gusiguié in Zapotec means “the season of flowers,” which lasts from April to October. The temperatures are warm, and bi nisa, a soft and feminine wind, arrives gently from the south. As the days pass from May into June, almost all Juchitecos will sweat their way from party to parade throughout this period of important fiestas. Then, come late July, the calendula begins—a forty-day crescendo leading up to the first rain. This subtle change in weather signals to farmers that they must sow their fields in order to prepare for what comes next—rain. When the brief period of rain does arrive, it does so in force. The rain then lets up midway through October, and a refreshing breeze sweeps through town. Starting off slow, the air quickly picks up speed. This wind, called bi yoxho in Zapotec is an “old grandfather”—a forceful wind from the North. This is when the season changes once again. October until April is the season of gusibá, or “the season of the tombs.”


Like most foreigners in Mexico for Día de los Muertos, I possessed a collage of images that defined my expectations for this holiday (Day of the Dead = dancing skeletons). However, what I experienced late in October 2014 was something I had to learn many times over during my fieldwork in Juchitán. My expectations were not only always wrong, but they were also constantly subverted to reveal their total futility.

I had come to Juchitán to conduct fieldwork regarding different experiences and perceptions of the massive industrial-scale wind energy industry that had emerged in recent years. So while I knew a little bit about the wind, I did not expect to find myself fascinated by the Day of the Dead. I didn’t know of any connection, nor did I think I was the best person to study that question. So what I am writing is rather unexpected.

Unlike the state-sanctioned Day of the Dead popularized across the globe, Xandú in Juchitán is a solemn occasion. Juchitecos invite their recently deceased relatives to visit. The souls will quite literally arrive. I had been attending a weekly Zapotec history class at a local community center since I arrived a few months earlier. Our professor was a young historian named Gubidxa, and the class size varied from between eight and ten adults, while neighborhood kids would wander in and out. Our discussion on November 1 was about Xandú, and Gubidxa was urging the other students to reflect on the “why” of their own family’s practices. After various aspects were mentioned, like the fruit that is laid out on the altar, Gubidxa sought to sum up their points to move the conversation forward. “Most of us here have a similar conception of death, especially when it comes to the days of Xandú. The souls of recently deceased relatives will come home. How they do it, who knows? But they are coming. And if they are coming, then we must have everything prepared to receive them, because if we are going to receive them, then we have to receive them properly, as they deserve.”

The elements and procedural details of Xandú, he explained, facilitate the soul’s journey of transformation. Our conversation then turned to some of the unspoken rules. “If someone died on October 20, you aren’t going to make an alter for the Day of the Dead on October 30, are you? No, you are going to wait until the next year. But why?” His enthusiasm started to mount: “Our grandparents have taught us that this is because the deceased won’t be able to make it back that quickly—they are still on their way. Where they going, who knows? But it’s going to take them a while to get there.”


While the essentials—like water, candles incense, flowers, fruit, and bread—are always displayed in abundance, people will also display chocolate, tamales, and “if they liked tlayudas, well, you can put those out too. If they preferred spaghetti, well then you put out spaghetti. The souls will draw out the essence of this food to nourish themselves.” The candles help illuminate the route to guide the soul home, the scents help in this as well. The glass of water—well of course they will be quite thirsty from their long journey.

Altars take one of two forms. The first, biguié or biyé, uses flowers, wood, and banana leaves to construct a square within which four smaller squares are then formed, all of which are then surrounded by a circle. This design is said to derive from the Zapotec calendar—a 260-day year with months that last twenty days. A woven mat is set in front of the biyé whereupon the fruit, candles, food, and water are displayed. From reading and conversations, it seems that the mat is one of the most important aspects of this altar, as it serves to separate space. Following the logic that the souls are quite literally coming, it is on the mat where the living and the dead meet. The other form of altar is like one face of a pyramid, constructed with nine levels, each said to represent one of the levels through which the soul must pass in their journey from this world to the other.


In the days before and after Xandú, I found myself kind of surprised by my interest in the details of ritual practice. I had come to study infrastructure and I thought of myself as a “real modern anthropologist,” blah blah blah. But there was something about it that just grabbed me—perhaps a reason so many anthropologists are drawn to Juchitán.

Everyone agreed—after Xandú, when the altar is dismantled, all of the fruit that has been left out, despite being only a few days old, has no flavor at all. My first instinct when my friends said that was skeptical. As the days passed and I kept talking about it with people, it finally hit me: the aspects of the altar are not merely symbolic—they are also very real. Ashamed by my own disenchantment, I tried to learn what the world felt like if the fruit really had no flavor.

In late October, between the change in season and the solemnity of Xandú, the overall feeling of the city was distinct, and in my memory, it stands out as a time apart from the rest of my fieldwork. Juchitán is normally a very loud place, a city that seems to be quite literally bursting from the seams with noise. But when writing this and recalling this period, the memories are uncharacteristically quiet, except, of course, for the music and the wind. While preparations in the days leading up to October 30 were, per normal, filled with lewd jokes, once evening came, it was conspicuously quiet. We sat on the patio outside the small room where the altar was built. The lights were mostly off, the  wind howled, and the hundreds of candles struggled to remain alight.

I can imagine you might be reading this and thinking to yourself, obviously there is a connection between the arrival of the windy season and the arrival of the souls. I am just beginning to go through my field notes, listening back on the materials I gathered last year. I can’t say what it all means just yet. At the time, I was seized by the sensual—the flurry of preparations, the faint scent of copal smoke. But perhaps this convergence of seasonal change and ritual celebration underscores the ways the weather continues to manifest in actions and practices that are ancient but also in a constant state of change. This underscores so much of what I learned over and over again in Juchitán—there is a reason why and how things are done. It is not a logic I could have anticipated but, once experienced, is quite remarkable.

Juchitán itself is a convergence of intensities. The continuity from life to death is reflected in the annual climatic changes.


There seems to be a fortitude to these practices that I had not anticipated. The practices are simultaneously so very ancient and totally adaptive and ever changing. The word  “syncretism,” so often used to describe the convergence of indigenous practice with the Catholic Church, just doesn’t seem to do it justice nor account for the ways practices change and adapt. What I observed and was taught by my friends in Juchitán was the complex, conflicted, and ever-shifting ways they grapple with their multiple ways of being in the world. My friends were cosmopolitan and at the same time committed to maintaining a set of practices that seems to help reinforce a very literal relationship to this very place. They are tied to Juchitán by practice—year in and year out. If their loved one’s souls are returning to the home where their umbilical cords were buried, then they must be there as well in order to welcome them as they deserve.

I like to think about these practices and try to embody these beliefs, imagining what it would feel like if my ancestors would come to visit. Not only would they come in October, but then, just as the winds start to slow down and the temperatures begin to rise once again, I would also be able to go to the cemetery, along with everyone else in town, to convivir—coexist—with my ancestors and neighbors for the equally important ritual on Palm Sunday in early April.

Stephanie Friede
is a PhD Candidate in the department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Her dissertation explores the culture and politics of industrial wind energy on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, Mexico.

All photos in this post are credited to the author.

Many thanks to my friends in Juchitán and the many scholars who have written about Zapotec relationships with death.

If you are interested in learning more about this place and practices:

De la Cruz, Victor. 2007. El pensamiento de los Binnigula’sa: cosmovision, religion y calendario con especial referencia a los binniza. Mexico City: Casa Juan Pablos.

Norget, Kristin. 1996. “Beauty and the Feast: Aesthetics and the Performance of Meaning in the Day of the Dead, Oaxaca, Mexico.” Journal of Latin American Lore 19: 53–64.

Nutini, Hugo. 1988. Todos Santos in Rural Tlaxcala: A Syncretic, Expressive, and Symbolic Analysis of the Cult of the Dead. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Royce, Anya Peterson. 2012. Becoming an Ancestor: The Isthmus Zapotec Way of Death. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cite as: 
Friede, Stephanie. 2015. “Weather, Ritual, and Día de los Muertos in Juchitán.” EnviroSociety. 30 October.

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New Featured Article!

“Nature’s Market?” Available as a Free PDF Download

October 21, 2015

The latest Environment and Society featured article is now available! This month’s article, “Nature’s Market? A Review of Organic Certification,” comes from Volume 2 (2011). Shaila Seshia Galvin takes a critical look at literature on organic certification from diverse national and regional contexts while incorporating her own extensive fieldwork with organic smaller holders in north India.

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Shaila Seshia Galvin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Development Studies (Geneva, Switzerland). Her research interests include political ecology, the anthropology of environment and development, and political anthropology.

Visit the featured article page to download your copy of the article today before it’s gone! A new article is featured every month.

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New Issue of Environment and Society!

October 19, 2015


Environment and Society
Volume 6 is now available from Berghahn Journals! To access all of the articles of this issue that specifically focuses on the Anthropocene, visit the journal’s website here. The following is an excerpt from Amelia Moore’s introduction to this issue, available as a free PDF download:

The Anthropocene is everywhere in academia. There are Anthropocene journals, Anthropocene courses, Anthropocene conferences, Anthropocene panels, Anthropocene podcasts, and more. It is very safe to say that the Anthropocene is having a moment. But is this just a case of fifteen minutes of fame, name recognition, and bandwagon style publishing? The authors in this issue of ARES think not, and we would like to help lend a critical sensibility to the anthropological consideration of the concept and its dissemination.

We recognize that the Anthropocene is an epoch in formation. As a category and as a concept, the term inspires fear, revelations, skepticism, and all manner of predictions and projects. In other words, the Anthropocene is as generative as it is contested. And as global anthropogenic change becomes an increasingly defining feature of contemporary life, the authors in this issue of ARES look beyond the kneejerk censure of the Anthropocene as an academic fad in order to locate the social and political significance of the idea while it congeals around the world.

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Heritage, the Ship of Theseus, and the Song of Homer

October 14, 2015

Iain Davidson

What would we say if we heard that the troops from two countries working together were hell-bent on destroying the heritage monuments of a third? In addition to the human lives they took, they destroyed one of the most beautiful groups of buildings in the region, steeped in historical significance. As they did so, they looted fine art treasures to fill the houses of the rich and the museums of the “civilized” world—where they remain. The theft of these treasures caused as much resentment among the descendants of those who lost them as Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles from Athens to Britain. The actions sound like those of the disgruntled Sunni troops of Iraq and Syria in their joint actions, reverting to beheading, blowing up the remains of Palmyra, and selling antiquities to the world market to fund their activities. They also describe the actions of the British and French armies in China in 1860.

One of the British commanders in China was the son of that same Elgin, engaged in a war in which the troops from France and Britain were supposedly trying to free up trade with China by vicious military action—bizarre though that sounds. It was he who was responsible for the destruction of the Summer Palace in Beijing; his troops looted and pillaged the imperial treasures. A much restored version of the Summer Palace is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Among the features destroyed by the British but now restored is the 728-meter Long Corridor—so long, tourists are told, that it is in the Guinness World Records. In the harsh climate around Beijing, the fabric of the restored corridor requires almost continuous maintenance.

Workers repainting the timbers of the Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing

Workers repainting the timbers of the Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing

The corridor was decorated with more than 10,000 paintings that have also been reconstructed. They, like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, must be repainted on a regular basis. If the corridor is not original and is constantly renewed, and if the paintings have to be repeatedly restored, we might question the basis for the fame of the material heritage of the Summer Palace as it is shown to tourists. Is it anything more than a tourist attraction, a theme park of the Ming Dynasty, like that replica recently constructed 1,000 kilometers from Beijing where equivalent structures and paintings can be enjoyed by even larger masses of tourists?

Unrestored painting in the Long Corridor, Summer Palace

Unrestored painting in the Long Corridor, Summer Palace

What we are talking about here is the “old man’s spade.” You know the story: the old man used to say that he’d had only one spade all his life, and he had only changed the handle five times and the blade twice. Is the old man saying anything other than that he is just a silly old man? This blog considers the question of the authenticity of the Summer Palace, one of the jewels of Chinese World Heritage. Is it any more authentic than the old man’s claim to have had only one spade? The issues relate equally to the much reconstructed Great Wall or the much renovated Forbidden City. Even the Terracotta Warriors have to be reconstructed before they can be displayed in their astonishing variety.

Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an, in various states of reconstruction

Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an, in various states of reconstruction

All over the world, important heritage places (such as the Washington Elm, where George Washington supposedly received his command, on Cambridge Common in Massachusetts) have to be renewed (the original tree died) or they lose their impact as heritage places. Does heritage tend toward theme parks, or is “real” heritage somehow different? This is particularly interesting in the light of a proposal for a park north of Sydney, Australia, where Chinese heritage buildings might be copied but would probably not acquire heritage significance. How important is it, when honoring heritage, to call a spade a spade?

In philosophy, the question of the old man’s spade is known as the ship of Theseus paradox and has been discussed since the time of the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece (Lowenthal 1989). There is even a version that relates to George Washington’s axe, presumably the one he did or did not use to cut down the cherry tree. The philosophical question turns on the interpretation if the ship carried spare timber for repairs during the voyage, and whether it would be the same ship even if it were completely renewed. Can the old man’s spade (or the ship or the axe) be considered the same one after its history of changes? Various thought experiments have been devised to discuss the relevant options. But whether these thoughts are about the use of the same materials, the way the thing was made, the shape of the thing, or the use to which the thing is/was put, the discussion has centered principally on the essence of the material “thing” rather than the relationship between it and other things, places, or people that surround it. Mike Schiffer (1999) has emphasized this three-way communication between people and things in The Material Life of Human Beings and the centrality to human life of human interactions with materiality. Although heritage values might be related to the (generally material) qualities of the heritage thing or place, the fundamental reason for heritage status of the thing or place is the interactions people have with it.

This quality of the importance of the heritage-bearing people—the consumers of heritage—enables the concept of heritage to extend beyond the material to intangible aspects of culture. The heritage is more than the material thing or place; it is also the narratives and interpretations that people bring to it, or anchor to it. But without the material anchor, who can identify the original or reconstructed parts of the intangible? We could engage in a thought experiment of our own, switching from material cultural heritage to intangible cultural heritage. Beside the ship of Theseus paradox about a materially substantive ship, there is a song of Homer paradox, through which we could debate whether the final (written) version of The Odyssey (whatever it says about ships) was the same as had been originally sung by the first person who called himself (or herself) Homer. By this logic, is West Side Story really a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, and is it the same story in the Vanuatu movie Tanna? It turns out that the legitimation of heritage turns on the interaction of these two paradoxes. There is no paradox of the ship of Theseus provided there is an attached history that sings about the history of replacement of parts. The old man’s spade has been with him all his life because he can tell the story that he has never had to replace both parts at the same time. We know the changes between Shakespeare’s and Bernstein’s stories and the one from Vanuatu because there are material versions of them.

The material cultural heritage experience is (generally) tied to a location and anchored by the materiality of what people constructed there. In all cases there is a narrative about special events in the past, which generally are of interest primarily to the people whose lives have been affected by (and are a product of) the relevant histories. These narratives are subject to the song of Homer paradox—no two versions of the history are quite the same, as in the Rashomon effect—just as the material heritage is subject to the changes of materials described in the ship of Theseus paradox. They become objects of tourist interest through the material things, whether beautiful or not, in their context of either dominated or constructed landscapes. All of these elements are needed to create the heritage experience. The Summer Palace was reconstructed in defiance of its destruction by colonial powers, and the destruction and reconstruction have become part of the narrative “song.” And it was built in the same location, beside the same lake, to which are attached singular narratives. No theme park can replicate that combination of material structure, location, and intangible heritage.

Whenever there is a contest about the preservation of the material remains of cultural heritage, we should remember that all cultural heritage preservation is a political act. It privileges the interests of people who are stakeholders in that heritage over those of others. Those stakeholders may be indigenous people, commonly in Australia and the United States, indeed in most countries that have been the victims of colonialism. Their songs will be the most powerful connection between the material and the people. There are others whose “songs” do not provide the complement to the material culture, whose attitudes, therefore, principally focus on the material. Heritage professionals on one side are key stakeholders defending material heritage, while developers or industry shareholders on the other are often not committed to the material or the narrative. Governments will always have an interest, particularly because the protections are legislated by them and most often the preservation must be funded by them. And then there are the interests of the general public. That general public often has multiple sources of narrative. If they are tourists, often that is quite separate from the dominant narrative of their own lives.

How does this discussion inform our understanding of the destruction of heritage buildings in Palmyra? Nothing can justify the murder of Khaled al-Asaad, the archaeologist most closely associated with the place, but nothing can justify many other killings in wars, nor the associated destruction of heritage. The lesson of this comparison is that the destruction of the material of cultural heritage is a common feature of the clash of ideologies. No particular side has been generally virtuous. Material culture can be restored, but the intangible songs and stories, of the people who are custodians of the heritage, may be more difficult to recover unless they survive in a material form. It is the interplay of material cultural heritage and the intangible heritage associated with it that is strongest. The changing ship of Theseus can be interpreted best when there is, in the same frame, a song of Homer, however much that too changes.

Iain Davidson
is an archaeologist who also works in Cultural Heritage management. Trained in the United Kingdom, he has worked at the University of New England (Australia) and Harvard. He is working on a volume about the evolution of symbolic behavior in Australia.

His two most recent publications are:

Davidson, Iain. Forthcoming. “Stone Tools: Evidence of Something in between Culture and Cumulative Culture.” In Miriam N. Haidle, Nicholas J. Conard, and Michael Bolus, eds., The Nature of Culture. Springer International Publishing.

Tasire, Alandra K., and Davidson, Iain. 2015. A Fine-Grained Analysis of the Macropod Motif in the Rock Art of the Sydney Region, Australia. Australian Archaeology 80: 48–59.

All photos in this posted are credited to the author.


Lowenthal, David. 1989. “Material Preservation and Its Alternatives. Perspecta 25: 67–77, doi: 10.2307/1567139.

Schiffer, Michael Brian. 1999. The Material Life of Human Beings: Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication. London: Routledge.

Cite as: 
Davidson, Iain. 2015. “Heritage, the Ship of Theseus, and the Song of Homer.” EnviroSociety. 14 October.

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