A dance for the dead
by Richard Ruelas - Oct. 28, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
The clumps of grass that sprang up in the dirt between the grave markers at Guadalupe Cemetery had turned dry and yellow by early October. It was Ernesto Flores' job to remove them before Dia de los Muertos, when families traditionally hold daylong celebratory vigils on the grounds.
The pile of debris Flores raked up was a mix of grass and leaves and flower petals. Flores, whose shirt identified him as a Town of Guadalupe employee, was careful not to scoop any of the stuffed animals, porcelain dolls, beer cans, flower wreaths and other items that decorated the graves. Most had been left by families on Dia de los Muertos a year ago.
There is no policy on removing grave decorations at this more than century-old burial ground. "They stay there until they rot, I guess," Flores said. "Nobody takes them away. If they do, it's mostly family."
Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) will be marked with various celebrations around the Phoenix area. There will be art exhibits, plays and a tequila tasting to mark the day.
But in this corner of the Valley, in a block-long, dirt-field cemetery tucked away in a residential Tempe neighborhood, the residents of Guadalupe will continue a Yaqui tradition whose history stretches back centuries.
Where European and American culture shields itself from death, the Yaqui people celebrate it, believing that it is simply a passage from one world to another.
"I think for us, death and life and birth is all intertwined," said Octaviana Trujillo, a Northern Arizona University professor and chair of the Applied Indigenous Studies department. She grew up in Guadalupe.
"Death is seen in multidimensions. We're able to talk about it."
As some traditions, like artwork featuring cavorting skeletons and sugar skulls, have spread into popular culture, so have the traditional attitudes about death that inform them.
Wayne Murray, who has run a Dia de los Muertos festival in the Coronado neighborhood of Phoenix, said he embraced the tradition because he liked its attitude toward death.
"I like the idea that one day out of the year we can talk about death with our friends," he said. In his Lutheran background, "it doesn't come up in dinner conversation in our daily lives."
Those discussions have provided a way of healing, Murray said. He has witnessed people break down as they finally give voice to memories about passed loved ones. "It kind of brings these people back to life."
For the Yaquis, the remembrance lasts throughout October, Trujillo said. Families make flower wreaths or create new crosses to replace the weathered ones at the graves.
On Oct. 31, families prepare food, the comfort items that their deceased family members enjoyed. The next day, they set it on an altar and wait for a maestro, or neighborhood priest, to come by their house and pray with them.
On Nov. 2, the families head to the cemetery and plan to spend the day.
"You spend that time thinking of the people that are not part of this world anymore," she said. "You send good thoughts, and you connect with them in a special way."
The tradition of decorating graves on Dia de los Muertos began among indigenous tribes in Mexico and was imported north to Guadalupe by the Pasqua Yaqui tribe, which began the burial ground after moving to the area in the 1890s.
The tradition is a mixture of ancient traditions that were melded with the Catholic faith brought over, sometimes forcibly, by the Spanish conquistadors.
"I think that's pretty amazing," Trujillo said, "how this small Yaqui community is still . . . continuing their ceremonies."
At 52, Flores feels a responsibility to pass on the tradition. He said he didn't always value or respect the old ways, but has learned to treasure them.
He plans to take part in the ceremonial dances that take place at midday on the special day. "It's a way to respect people and a way to respect ourselves."
Flores said friends in other parts of town ask him about the Day of the Dead.
"I can't explain some of the things. This is the way the elders did it. We're just following in their footsteps."
Flores believes there are spirits that populate the grounds. "I know they're around me."
Yet, for as much time as Flores spends at the cemetery, it's not where he wants his final resting place.
He is part Apache and spent part of his childhood in the White Mountain area. He wishes to follow that tradition and have his body ceremonially burned and his ashes scattered.
"You're everywhere," he said. "You could be here. You could be everywhere."
Reach the reporter at richard
El Dia de los Muertos
What: An outdoor party to honor the dead and celebrate life.
When: 5 p.m. Saturday.
Where: 1733 E. Oak St., Phoenix.
CAPTION: Elaborate altars are highlights of Dia de los Muertos celebrations that Wayne Murray has organized for almost two decades.
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