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In Mexico, They Really Know How To Celebrate All Hallow Eve

By Kevin Franklin

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  HALLOWEEN HAS LOST its significance for many of us. So much so that few people realize Halloween is an abbreviation for All Hallow Eve--the eve before the day Catholics celebrate their saints. A few more folks connect the date to a forgotten pagan holiday, but it's significance is hazy at best.

Fortunately, we live along the border with a culture that has maintained its connection to this otherworldly time of year and celebrates it as Día de Los Muertos. Many Tucsonans are familiar with the name, but fuzzy on the details. This is where Piet Van de Mark and his company, Baja's Frontier Tours, step in. Van de Mark offers a cultural orientation to El Día de Los Muertos, introducing curious gringos to the holiday as they tour an historic cemetery in Tubac and continue on to Nogales, Sonora, to see the sprawling and colorful Panteón Nacional (cemetery).

El Día de Los Muertos--The Day of The Dead--is a time to celebrate the lives of dead loved ones. It's also a time to head out into the cemeteries to clear the weeds, place flowers and generally spruce things up.

Modern American culture does its level best to isolate death from the business of living. Family graves may occasionally receive a visit by a lone person shouldering a glum aura. But most of our graves are forgotten by everyone except the cemetery watchman.

Mexicanos, on the other hand, seem to focus on the life of the person and keep the memory alive. This is the essence of Día de Los Muertos.

"There are no caretakers in traditional Mexicano cemeteries," says Jim Griffith, University of Arizona Southwest Folklore Center director. "All the work on the gravesite is done by the family...about the time of Día de Los Muertos."

Grave maintenance can range from simply whitewashing the pile of stones that mark the site to erecting an elaborate, wrought-iron fence and roof. Flowers, especially marigolds, are also left at the grave. Some families have massive wreaths, called coronas, constructed from real flowers, paper or plastic.

It's also a good time for the living, with the consumption of a variety of specialty foods like pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"). This rich egg bread, sweetened with sugar, is generally baked into bone shapes. Alexia Bakery, on south Fourth Avenue, makes a giant flat skull with marigold jam for eyes, says Griffith. Talk about your party conversation piece!

Van de Mark enjoys introducing unfamiliar gringos to this weekend of celebration and remembrance.

"Six or seven years ago when I first came up with the idea," he recalls, "I had people say to me, 'You're trying to get people to pay you money to take them to cemeteries? It's not going to work.'"

Undeterred, Van de Mark pressed on with his idea. He's gone from one van of intrepid adventurers to two busloads of cultural tourists last year.

"It's a fun thing to do that's also very, very important," he says. "You can get a better cultural understanding and gain a better assimilation or attachment to this part of the world.

"People tell me all the time they moved here because of the weather. They have only a vague idea about the unique culture around them. Then they come on a trip like this and begin to see the rich heritage coming across the border.

"I spent years and years doing natural history tours and thinking that it's really important because we're destroying our own habitat. But these cultural programs are equally important, because we as a people--I don't mean just anglos, but humans in general--have room to grow in terms of cultural understanding. The more we learn, the more we grow, and the more we come together. The better prepared we are to take care of our 'human habitat,' the better we can take care of our natural environment."


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