Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer
Back to Traditions Mexico Cultural Journeys

Life and the Dead in Oaxaca


By Carolyn Kallenborn, Artist and Social Designer

As an artist, all of my works are very personal. Though the form may vary from sculpture to dyed and stitched cloth to an installation or a film, the work always originates from a story or experience I want to share.  I create works as visual poetry, not to literally re-create a scene or story, but to evoke how something feels. What I have written below, is not in the script, but rather my personal motivation for creating the film La Vida y Los Muertos / Life and Dead.

When I am in the U.S. it seems like that thought of death, and certainly the thought of our own demise, is a subject we tend to avoid. In every respect we protect ourselves from danger and death. We sell meat that has no traces of the being it once was. We embalm and entomb our dead in the thought that their bodies will remain unchanged.  It sometimes seems that we try to fool ourselves into thinking that if don’t look at death then maybe it won’t really come.

In my years of traveling to Oaxaca, I noticed that death and danger are an accepted part of every day life. People ride in the back of pick-ups all the time, manhole covers are left open on the sidewalks and people shoot fireworks right off their heads during fiestas. Whole, plucked chickens and skinned pig heads hang in the market stalls. The iconic image of “La Calavera Catrina” the humorous, elegant skeleton dressed in fancy clothes, is ubiquitous.

My Oaxacan friends talk cheerfully about “Los Muertos” describing the large sand paintings, and elaborate altars set for the festival when the dead return to party with the living.  I am captivated by stories and photos of the festival where people sit by the gravesides at 2 a.m. and share memories of their departed family members, play cards and picnic by the graves. It is a time that is both joyous and sad, painful and beautiful.



I want to share the story of Day of the Dead because it is such a beautiful and poetic alternative view of death and our relationship to our loved ones who have passed. As an invitation to spend a few days each year to acknowledge and honor death and the dead, the celebration emphasizes importance of deeply enjoying life because we are reminded that we will not be here forever.

La Vida y Los Muertos (Life and Dead) is a documentary film filled with rich visuals and captivating music to evoke the beauty, joy, sadness and magic of the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico. The film winds its way from the funky urban feel of the city of Oaxaca, through the intimate home altars in Teotitlan and Mitla, the enchanting candle-lit midnight cemetery of Atzompa, the wild demon dancers of Etla, and the joyous flower covered graves in San Antonino. La Vida y Los Muertos is a “silent” film with no narration, inviting the audience to immerse themselves in the music and the imagery to experience a slowing down of time that is an inherent part of the festival. The film provides an opportunity to notice the care and thoughtfulness of the preparations and to experience the joyous celebration of life.


This film was produced for educational purposes to promote cultural understanding. All profits from viewing will go towards the development of cross-cultural education and the support of the communities depicted in this film.


  • Posted in: