Day of Dead takes on new significance

Nov. 2, 2001 at 12:46 PM
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SAN ANTONIO, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- For many families of Mexican descent taking part in Friday's traditional Dia de los Muertos observance the day took on new significance this year.

Many of the makeshift altars created in homes in memory of family and friends who have died in the past year, covered with flowers, candles, and photos also included reminders of Sept. 11.

Some families traveled to cemeteries with pan de muerto -- sweet bread baked in the shape of coffins -- and had picnics at gravesites, often eating sugar candies in the shape of grinning skulls.

"In a sense we are mocking death, saying that death does not have the final power, that life in Christ has the power," said Joel Birkenfeld of San Antonio's Mission San Jose, which has celebrated Dia De Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, every Nov. 2 since the mid-1700s.

But this year, many of the ofrendas and altarcitas included something new, mementoes of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and tributes to those who died in those attacks.

"It's turned out to be a good way to remember those victims," said noted author and Latino historian Antonio Madrid of San Antonio's Trinity University. "People were lost and there's no trace of them. We have no way of grieving them. We can't have a funeral."

Dia de los Muertos, as are many of the colorful festivals of Latin America and the Caribbean, is a combination of pre-Columbian traditions of honoring the dead and the Roman Catholic All Souls Day.

"The bread in the shape of the corpses, and the sugar skulls, and you get the pamphlets that make jokes and draw death as skeletons, we make fun of death," Madrid said.

Added to the Dia de Los Muertos celebrations in the 19th century were colorful paintings of grinning skulls and skeletons, often dancing and wearing extravagant clothing, drawings which became familiar to many Americans in the '60s and '70s on Grateful Dead album covers.

Madrid said Dia de Los Muertos traditions, especially the altarcita and ofrenda have begun popping up spontaneously around the New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania crash sites. He said it is evidence of the spread of Latino culture across the United States.

"People have brought flowers, pictures, letters, poems, belongings and the like, and these recall the altars which we set up for the day of the dead," he said.

Among the most interesting celebrations and the one most foreign in non-Latino parts of the country, are the family gatherings and picnics at cemeteries.

"We believe that those who have gone before us have lessons to teach us, that they are still with us in life, and that's why you see the customs that you do on the day," Birkenfeld said.

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