LEICESTER — Altars created in honor of deceased loved ones, known as ofrendas, in Artemio Ruiz’s native state of Veracruz, Mexico, would have dwarfed the large one that was on display Nov. 2 at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.
He said that the ofrendas back home prominently display photographs of family members, which for him include his father and three brothers.
And maintaining the tradition of setting up these altars to celebrate Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) makes the long distance from their home country a little more bearable, concurred Ruiz and Nicolas Gutiérrez, also from Veracruz.
"For us, these days are not sad ones," Gutiérrez explained. "They (family members) come to visit us one day a year. They come to be with us."
The men and their wives, who prepared several dishes, participated in a Nov. 2 program at the church sponsored by the Livingston County Arts Council. The event marked the end of the "Festive Foodways" series that sought to highlight food traditions that are part of cultural celebrations throughout the region, explained Karen Canning, traditional arts program director for Genesee Valley Council on the Arts.
"Food is something that really stays with us for a long time … for most cultures," she said.
The favorite foods of the deceased also are part of the ofrendas, Canning said as she presented to the audience of more than 50 people information about the colorful display located next to the church altar.
The ofrenda display was laden with gourds, breads, fruits and tamales under a large, colorful floral arch along with vases of white, purple and yellow chrysanthemums. In Mexico, the flowers used for these displays are marigolds, which cannot be found here at this time of year, Canning explained.
She also presented a slide show of Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca, including families staying overnight at cemeteries. She visited that area of southeastern Mexico a decade ago.
She noted that the Mexican holiday grew out of the Catholic feast days of All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2, which the Spanish conquerors brought with them as they sought to evangelize the indigenous people of Mexico.
"This harvest time was a time when souls could communicate with us … and this combined with the Catholic Spanish tradition of remembering our saints who went before us," Canning said of how the indigenous people merged their beliefs with those of the Spanish conquerors.
Eduardo Rodríguez of Mexico City said that he tradition also was born of respect for one’s ancestors, and this makes it distinct from the custom of Halloween that grew out of the feast days in the United States.
"We believe in Mexico that it is as natural to die as being born," he said, noting the depictions throughout of country of skeletons doing various activities of the living. "And this (ofrenda) is a sign of our respect for our loved ones."
Following the presentation, those in attendance were able to try ponche (a hot apple drink), hot chocolate, tamales and bread of the dead. Children also could make paper flowers, masks and skeleton puppets with the help of students studying Spanish at York Central Schools.
Carroll Jones, a parishioner of St. Agnes Church in Avon, said that she greatly admires the tradition.
"I really think this is a wonderful idea," added Jones, who attended the presentation with friend Kathy Zimmer, a parishioner of St. Matthew Church in Livonia.
Jones said that whenever she is lost, she will ask her deceased father for directions and he always leads her to the right place, and she also talks to other deceased relatives.
"I truly believe no one ever leaves," she said. "They are not far (from us)."