XOXOCOTLAN, Mexico – Tourists normally flock to the cemetery in Xoxocotlan during Mexico's annual Day of the Dead celebrations to see graves decorated with patterned tapestries of flower petals or brightly colored sand.
But this year, only a handful of tourists showed up to the cemetery brightened by flickering candles on the outskirts of the state capital, Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.
Most were scared away by a five-month-long seizure of Oaxaca by protesters demanding the ouster of the state governor. The violence has killed at least 8 people and led the U.S. embassy to warn Americans against traveling to the state.
Federal police raided Oaxaca to retake the city, but at least one federal official acknowledge authorities still do not have the capital completely under control.
"Our celebration is very sad this year, it doesn't have that happy feeling," said Xoxocotlan resident Jose Calido Cruz, 67, as he sat on a plastic chair beside the candle-bedecked grave of his parents late Tuesday. "A year ago, there were a lot of tourists here."
Nearby, a group of young men strummed guitars and softly sang ballads beside a relative's grave. Stands offered "bread of the dead" buns.
"This year the cemetery looks about the same as every year, unlike the rest of the city, and we're really thrilled to be here," said tour guide Nancy Zaslavsky of Los Angeles, California.
But this year, Zaslavsky was one of the few guides leading visitors through the cemetery, where in past years residents said as many as five busloads would arrive. Zaslavsky had about a half dozen people in her group.
In Oaxaca, protesters erected altars to those killed during the conflict.
One altar bore a picture of Bradley Roland Will, 36, of New York, an independent journalist and activist who was killed Friday. Protesters blame his death on local officials.
A sign on the altar read: "I gave my life for the truth of the people." The altar was decorated with fruit, bread and flowers, which Mexicans give as offerings to dead relatives and friends. Nearby, a colored sand painting of the Virgin Mary was dedicated "to our brothers who fell in the struggle."
Day of the Dead traditions are stronger in rural, southern states like Oaxaca, where families build elaborate altars and spend the early morning hours of Nov. 1 at the graves of relatives.
Rooted in the Roman Catholic faith, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are celebrated throughout Latin America, with families picnicking at the graves of loved ones. But the Day of the Dead tradition is strongest in Mexico, where the holiday originated from harvest rituals associated with the Aztec god of the dead.
The Day of the Dead is a celebration of both life and death. The faithful gather in graveyards in hopes of contacting the dead through prayer, song and offerings of food and flowers. Those who died as children are remembered before dawn on Nov. 1 — All Saints Day — while the following day — All Souls Day — is set aside for those who died as adults.