Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Celebrating Easter in November

Father Juan’s face lit up as he talked about his visits—walking—to many villages in the parish of Xochitepec during the week leading up to the Day of the Dead. He went to many homes and to many “graveyards”—although he was quick to point out that the people never use the word “cemetery”; it’s always campo santo (“holy field” or “holy ground”).
The altar and ofrendas in the home of Delfina and Tomás in Agua Fría
What struck him the most, Juan said, was the realization as he was walking along that, for the indigenous people here, this is Easter! This is the celebration of life after death; this is the certainty that the dead really do accompany their families during this special time of year.
The altar and ofrendas in the home of Guadalupe and Simón in Xochitepec
So the families visit the campos santos, and they set up in their homes an altar for their deceased family members. On the altar are placed ofrendas (food and drink for the journey; life is changed, not ended), velas (candles, so the dead can find their way), cempoalxochitl (a special flower symbolizing beauty, virtue, and truth), pan de los muertos (special bread made in the shape of a human being), and copal (incense, symbolizing the sharing of one’s life with the people). A bamboo arch often goes above the altar; this makes the altar a kind of home (“come in and stay with us”); at the same time, the fact that the arch is a half-circle symbolizes that our time on earth is only a part of the journey of life; the rest—and the best—is yet to come.

These altars are not designed just for the family’s deceased; an arc of cempoalxochitl flowers is placed over the doorway or a trail of such flowers is placed on the ground outside the house, letting those deceased persons who are forgotten or who have no family know that they are invited to enter and be a part of this family.
The doorway to Delfina and Simon's house in Xochitepec
This year was special in one main way. The forty-three young men from the teachers college in Ayotzinapa who have been missing (after being taken away by police in Iguala) since September 26 were in many hearts and minds. In the village of Aguatordillo, forty-three families agreed ahead-of-time to include an extra candle on their altars. Other families found other ways to express solidarity with these young men and their families.
Everyone knows that the "For the 43" refers to the 43 students "disappeared" on September 26
Lighting candles for these young men doesn’t mean that people have lost hope that they be found alive. That hope lives on—nourished by many actions of solidarity: demonstrations, prayer vigils, collections, work stoppages, blocking of roads, etc. The candles symbolize the fact that these young men are part of a larger family. One story I heard was that a child asked his father, “Where is Ayotzinapa?” The father helped the boy place his hand over his heart as he responded, “Ayotzinapa is here.”
The altar at Edith's home in Zitlaltepec
It is a blessing to live among these beautiful people. This celebration of the Day of the Dead is not artificial or a “tourist attraction” for the people. This is life—life lived with God and with the deceased. For example, the second photo above of the altar was taken in the house of Simón and Guadalupe; besides their six children, I doubt that anyone else in the world—other than the dead visitors—saw this altar. Three children invited me to their home for breakfast that morning; that’s the only reason I saw their altar.
Saúl and Sara and Gaudencio (being carried) leading me to breakfast
Of course, the sad part of visiting altars in homes in different villages is to witness the poverty of the people (an example is the barefoot children in the previous photo). Offering me an egg (accompanied by coffee) made for a special breakfast in Xochitepec; offering me a bowl of rice (accompanied by water) made for a special dinner in Agua Fría. And, of course, both dishes were eaten with fingers and tortillas—no forks or knives or spoons. I am grateful to all of the supporters of Mission Mexico for your solidarity with our efforts to bring more light and life to this impoverished part of the world. God bless you.
Walking with Tomás to his house in Agua Fría (it's circled in the background)

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