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
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.