Sunday, November 3, 2013

An Unforgettable Day of the Dead Lesson

One of the best lessons I ever learned from the poor of the mountains of Mexico occurred in the early 1980s when I was living with Father Lawrence Moran in the very impoverished parish of Alcozauca.

I spoke almost no Spanish when I went to live with Father Moran in the summer of 1982. In a way I was in the same situation as a lot of people in his parish, since most of them spoke only Mixteco, a native language totally unrelated to Spanish.

On the Day of the Dead in 1982, I accompanied Father Moran (he was on the horse; I walked) to an incredibly poor village called Xonacatlan. I was surprised to see a rather thriving business in candles taking
place outside the small church. Sellers had come in from the neighboring State of Puebla to sell candles to the very poor people. Most families did their best to buy at least one candle for every loved one who had departed this world. In most cases, that meant a lot of candles.

I was shocked. My first thought was that these very poor people should buy food or clothing or blankets for their children. I knew that most people slept on the damp mud floors of their huts, and that malnutrition and sickness and death were common. I was convinced that the people should be more concerned about the living, not the dead. But since I spoke almost no Spanish and almost no Mixteco, I had to contain my inner rage and say nothing. But I definitely wished that I could have spoken out about this terrible “injustice.”

Two years later, in 1984, my father died in Canada. The next opportunity that I had, I bought my candle and I spent the night of the Day of the Dead in the cemetery of Alcozauca; it was located on a hill just outside the town. When I was by myself, I sat in the dark with my flickering candle and remembered gratefully all the loving sacrifices that my dad had lived in his life for me and the family, and I “talked” with Dad about life. When other people asked about my candle (my Spanish and my Mixteco had improved by then), I told anecdotes about my dad. When I asked about their candles, they shared stories—often with a mixture of tears and laughter—about their loved ones. In all-too-many cases, these loved ones had not had long lives; but, in another sense, this sharing of stories seemed to “make present” these loved ones—they weren’t really “gone”; they just happened to not be physically present.

As I walked into Alcozauca the next morning from the cemetery, I gave thanks to God for that incredible Day of the Dead experience. It “nourished” me; it “clothed” me; it “warmed” me—much more than food or clothing or blankets could ever have done. I also felt shame as I remembered my anger in Xonacatlan from a few years earlier. It brought home to me a special thought: after years of study in Catholic institutions, maybe I thought I knew a lot about God, but after years of impoverishment and death and struggle and constant faith in the Divine Presence, these people knew God a lot. There’s a difference! And I’m grateful that I discovered (and continue to discover) that difference.

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