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Families Honor Their Dead

Sun., Nov. 3, 1996

Julia Cuatl whipped up a big meal for her mom Saturday: tamales with chocolate mole sauce, sweet pastries - and the baby food she had spoon-fed her mother as she lay dying.

Cuatl said those were the foods her mother, Alejandra, enjoyed before she died in April 1991, at age 102, and the foods she would draw nourishment from as her spirit returned on the Day of the Dead.

“I fed her baby food in the last days when she could barely swallow,” said Cuatl, a 64-year-old seamstress from San Francisco Acatepec, a town of 3,000 set on a windswept plain beside two towering volcanoes.

As dawn turned the sky violet, farmers in sombreros and peasant women in shawls shivered in the chill mountain air as they arrived at the town cemetery with scythes and sacks of flowers.

Like millions of mostly Indian and rural peasant dwellers, Cuatl was taking part in an annual but age-old rite: honoring departed loved ones with foods and flowers in a blending of Christian and indigenous customs.

The Day of the Dead is one of Mexico’s most colorful holidays. It combines Roman Catholic observances of All Saints Day with pre-Hispanic customs of offering food, or even cigars and tequila, to souls said to return for a day.

All across Mexico, Indian villagers spent the night beside cemetery plots in the glow of candles. Others held Roman Catholic Masses for the dead.

Cuatl brought her mother’s meal to the cemetery. She said she felt her mother’s presence Saturday and recalled the stories she had told, especially of living through the 1910 Revolution when the Indian hero Emiliano Zapata rode through the central Mexican highlands.

“She told us how he used to hand over the haciendas of the landowners to the people,” she said fondly. “She was a teenager during the revolution.”

Spades and shovels clanged in the brown earth as fathers and sons of the dead uprooted weeds from around the tombs. Mothers and daughters heaped the graves with brilliant orange blossoms called Flor de Muerto or “Flower of Death.”

Tags: culture

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