Friday, October 27, 2006

Día de los Muertos -- Day of the Dead

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Day of the Dead celebrations combine Roman Catholic and indigenous traditions to honor the cycle of life and death.

There's nothing morbid about Day of the Dead.

In Minnesota and anywhere those of Mexican heritage make their homes, Nov. 1 and 2 are devoted to the Día de los Muertos festival, a vibrant ode to mortality and memory that mixes Roman Catholic ritual with ancient Aztec customs and adds a dash of magical realism.
It's a time to honor -- colorfully and joyfully -- family members and friends who have died, as well as long-dead ancestors.

At Catholic churches that serve Minnesota's growing Hispanic population -- the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis now counts 150,000 Spanish-language Catholics in its fold -- altars will be festooned with flowers, food and ancestral photos next week, and prayers and remembrances will be lifted up. At Mexican bakeries and candy stores on Minneapolis' Lake Street and St. Paul's West Side, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), candy skulls and other merrily macabre delicacies will fly off the counters.

And at cemeteries, gravestones will become tables for food and candles, though that custom is far
less popular in Minnesota than in Mexico, where night winds are warmer and the bones of most ancestors lie buried.

Honor and healing

In the broader U.S. culture, Halloween, with its commercial mania and kitschy gothic customs, gets most of the press. But along with the increased influence of Hispanic culture, the Day of the Dead is being more widely observed every year. It's "a very big observation" for Hispanic Catholics, said Anne Attea, director of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

For Catholics, Nov. 1 is All Saints' Day, Nov. 2 All Souls' Day. The former, Attea said, "focuses on the communion of saints" and the latter has become linked to "the Latino tradition in which ancient religious traditions practiced by indigenous people and Christianity meet."

Western theology doesn't offer anything quite like Day of the Dead, "with its connection with ancestral spirits and honoring of the soul's long journey," Attea said. "We are grateful for this gift from the Latino community. It looks at death in what is perhaps a more natural way."

At Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul, where the observance is called Día de los Difuntos, Nov. 1 will bring a daytime service to honor the saints and Nov. 2 a night mass to remember the dead, said Deacon Martin Jaques.

"We'll have a special altar covered with pictures of family members, food they liked to eat -- bananas, apples and candy -- and flowers," he said. "We remember them in prayer and honor them." Particularly for those who have lost loved ones in the past year, "it helps with healing," Jaques said. "It's a community thing -- everyone is focused on it, and that helps people who are grieving feel better, less alone."

Ray Gonzalez, a poet, fiction writer and professor of English at the University of Minnesota, grew up in El Paso, Texas, on the Mexican-U.S. border, where he was steeped in Mexican Catholic traditions. The home of his grandmother, who came from central Mexico, was decorated with calendar pictures of the Virgin Mary and saints, and Mexican knickknacks that paid homage both to Roman Catholicism and her Yaqui Indian heritage.

Gonzalez said Día de los Muertos observances at home, church and in cemeteries taught him that individuals and families are part of a broader history, both of a distinct people and of the human family. And it taught him that all -- rich and poor, mighty and humble -- are subject to the great leveler, death.

"You are a little boy, you bring food and flowers to the cemetery at night, and you're told that your great-grandmother and your grandfather are buried here or there, and all of a sudden you're learning about your ancestors," Gonzalez said. "Nowadays you can learn all about Day of the Dead and its traditions on the Internet, but that doesn't come close to observing it in a cemetery."

Native traditions, he said, "had such power that the early Catholic church was compelled to embrace and incorporate them."The Mexican Roman Catholic Church is heavy with ceremony and ritual, and maybe not as dogmatic as other forms of Catholicism," he said. It incorporates American Indian closeness to the Earth and natural cycles, as well as a belief in the soul's long journey "to a better state or world."

By celebrating that journey, Gonzalez said, Day of the Dead can help ease the fear of death. "Death is not represented by darkness or anything morbid, like you might find in some Western traditions," he said. "Part of the appeal is that it's one of the few times you can actually acknowledge the sense that there's a spirit world. You've got candles, rosaries, flowers, feasting, celebration. It's visually stunning, and it affects you deeply."

To be sure -- right down to the bones. Star Tribune
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