For Anglicans in México, celebrations are a way of life

Monday Mission
December 11, 2005

Editor's note: December 12 is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe—celebrated in Latin America as the "patroness of the Americas" with fiestas and fireworks. The Rev. Jan Nunley, deputy for communication, recently visited Anglicans in México for another colorful feast day, on an annual tour that combines fun and fundraising for vital ministries to México's poorest children.

For most Episcopalians, All Saints' and All Souls' Days are relatively somber feasts -- a time for quiet remembering of departed loved ones and a commemoration of heroes of the faith.

But in México, the time from All Hallows' Eve on October 31 to the evening of November 2 is a three-day celebration of life, paradoxically known as 'el Día de los Muertos': the Day of the Dead. Though a distinct minority in a predominantly Roman Catholic country, Anglicans in México celebrate it just as enthusiastically as their neighbors. [See SIDEBAR: Anglicans in México have a long history]

That's why, for the past six years, St. Paul's Anglican Church, located in the beautiful colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, founded in 1542, has sponsored a week-long tour for curious "gringos" who want a close-up look at the festivities. It's a unique opportunity to raise funds for the congregation's dynamic ministries to the children of the desert highlands north of México City.

A family celebration

Ask any three scholars and you'll get four opinions about the origins of México's celebration of the Day of the Dead. Some trace it to pre-Hispanic era Mesoamerican rites, pointing to the grisly tzompantli or stone skull racks found at such archaeological sites as Tula, Chichén Itzá, and Uxmal. Others cite European antecedents such as the danse macabre or Dance of Death representations that followed the medieval epidemic of bubonic plague.

But México's Dia de los Muertos differs from those examples in one crucial respect. Where ancient Mesoamerican or Spanish representations of death were, well, deadly serious, México's seem lighthearted, almost playful. And unlike Hallowe'en, a largely US phenomenon with Celtic roots that has gained popularity in México -- to the consternation of Mexican commentators -- el Día is not primarily for children, but for the entire family. It's a riot of color and creativity, with candy calaveras -- skulls -- and skeletal catrinas in elaborate costume in every shop window and on the ofrendas or altars that grace homes, businesses and public spaces.

A community effort

St. Paul's, for four decades a bilingual congregation in San Miguel and part of the Iglesia Anglicana de México, is about 40 percent Anglican or Episcopalian, with Christians of other denominations making up the remainder. Average attendance varies between 70 and 130 people, many of whom are part of the considerable community of expatriate or retired Americans and Canadians who call San Miguel home in the winter or summer months.

The congregation started inviting Episcopalians from the US to join them for el Día celebrations six years ago. Joal Donovan, wife of the parish's first rector, began the tours. Then Nancy Underwood, wife of former rector, the Rev. Dean Underwood, coordinated the tour until this year, when parishioners Camie and Larry Sands, formerly of Tacoma, Washington, took the reins. It's a daunting task, herding up to 50 people whose Spanish may be limited to a few essential phrases around the narrow cobblestone streets of San Miguel.

But the congregation pitches in with enthusiasm. Somehow every traveler finds a home in which to spend the week, not just as a base of operations but a place to share insights, observations, and the gracious and abundant hospitality of México.

Gracious welcomes

This year's tour began with a welcome dinner at the home of parishioners Bill and Barbara Porter, located just off the town square. Many of the 31 Americans on this tour come from parishes in the dioceses of Dallas and Michigan. Some are repeat visitors. Some of their hosts first became acquainted with San Miguel through the tour and decided to retire in México. There is a lively conversation at dinner as people discover connections and friends in common, or make new friends.

The first full day in San Miguel, a Saturday, gives the guests the option of getting acquainted with their host city or going on an excursion to the neighboring cities of Guanajuato or Querétaro, both important historic sites on México's "independence trail." Guanajuato, the state capital which served as a mining center for colonial New Spain, features rich architecture and a warren of tunnels built by the silver miners to channel floodwaters. They are now used for foot and auto traffic. Querétaro, a somewhat larger colonial center, features an aqueduct dating from the mid-18th century.

On Sunday, tour participants are invited to St. Paul's main worship service, largely conducted in English according to the 1979 US Book of Common Prayer. The building, constructed in 1965, stands in a park-like setting on a street just off the main artery, Ancha de San Antonio, a gentle walk from el Centro. A volunteer choir, led by director Xavier Hernandez and accompanied by organist Liliana Gutierrez, fills the small balcony.

In fact, the parish feels much like any congregation in the American Southwest -- until a bus pulls up to transport both tourists and parishioners to a hacienda owned by the morning's guest preacher and celebrant, the Rev. Harold Weicker. As a mariachi band blares, four impossibly tall papier-mache puppets -- a towering señora, two señoritas and a small child in a calavera mask -- swing and sway on the lawn to the music. Occasionally they plop down, propped in place by a quartet of broomsticks under their skirts, and the keen observer can spot the faces of the resting puppeteers through a small hatch.

Pilgrimages and offerings

On Monday, All Hallows' Eve, the congregation showcases ministries founded in part by proceeds from past tours. [See SIDEBAR: Day of the Dead tour helps parish feed the living] On the way to a festive barbecue at Rancho Jaguar, site of a museum of popular México art run by parishioners Robert and Jennifer Haas, the tour stops at the Sanctuario de Jesus Nazareno de Atotonilco. Atotonilco means "Place of the Hot Waters" in the Nahua language, and it has long been a place of rest and relaxation for the indigenous peoples of central México. But for more than 250 years it has also been one of the holiest places of pilgrimage in México, sometimes referred to as the "Sistine Chapel of the Americas."

The World Monuments Fund has named the church to its list of "100 most endangered monuments." Constructed in 1740 by Padre Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, the shrine's walls are covered with frescoes depicting the life, passion and resurrection of Jesus, painted by a local artist, Miguel Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre. It is also home to la Milagrosa Imagen del Señor de la Columna, the Miraculous Image of the Lord of the Column, depicting the scourging of Christ. As many as 100,000 people make pilgrimages to the shrine yearly, many to wear crowns of thorns and perform other religious exercises to remind them of Christ's sufferings on the road to Golgotha.

On Tuesday, All Saints' Day, participants are invited to a private home in San Miguel to be instructed in the fine points of constructing an ofrenda or Day of the Dead altar honoring departed loved ones. Indigenous teacher and healer Maria Teresa Valenzuela, a Tarahumara Indian from México's Copper Canyon, teaches the group about each of the elements in a traditional altar, including cempazuchitl or orange marigolds, candles, copal incense, sugar skulls, bread in animal and human forms, and photocopies of loved ones' pictures. [See SIDEBAR: Ofrendas remember the dead, nourish the living] Valenzuela and business partner Patrice Wynne own San Miguel Designs, www.sanmigueldesigns.com, working with local women to produce original specialty clothing and housewares decorated with Day of the Dead and Virgin of Guadalupe motifs. Proceeds from their business go to Valenzuela's project providing educational scholarships for older teenage girls.

Remembering and celebrating

Wednesday, the Day of the Dead dawns cool and clear. In the centro, in front of San Miguel's famously elaborate parish church or parroquia, is a huge ofrenda honoring Mario Moreno Reyes, better known as Cantinflas, the Mexican actor, circus performer and comedian who Charlie Chaplin once called "the funniest man in the world." Marigolds tumble into the street, line the walks, fill the air. Following an afternoon lecture by historian and parishioner Fred Stresen-Reuter, tour participants follow the crowds to the town cemetery, el panteón de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. There, they join Mexican families who have already cleaned and decorated the gravesites of their families and friends with ofrendas that range from simple to spectacular, and spent the day -- and often the previous night -- sitting at the graves reciting prayers and remembering the dead with songs and stories.

Photos and offerings from the previous evening's ofrenda show up as if by magic on one of the graves in the American section of the panteón, to the surprise and delight of tour members.

A farewell dinner that evening features music by the Tuna Oratoriana of San Miguel, a singing group dressed to resemble medieval Spanish university students, who traditionally sang in exchange for their tuition, food and a place to sleep. The modern tunos -- not all of them students -- entertain by request at parties and events and sell CDs of Mexican serenades and corridos. It's a festive end to the tour, which also raised a total of $24,000 for St. Paul's ministries this year.

The success of the Day of the Dead tour has prompted St. Paul's parishioners to think about plans for future tours at other times, possibly during Holy Week and Easter or the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe in December. For more information on St. Paul's tours, contact Camie Sands at 1.253.210.5613 (a US area code that rings directly to San Miguel) or email her at camie@casasands.com.

Other tours benefiting St. Paul's include a tour of Guatemala led by the Rev. Dean and Nancy Underwood, February 23-March 7, which includes Guatemala City, a Mayan archaeological site, the Rio Dulce, Lake Izabel, an Afro-Caribbean village, Lake Peten Utza, Tikal and more. Cost is US$1,760 double occupancy, $2,045 for singles. To sign up, email the Underwoods at nan@unisono.net.mx.

Glossary of terms

alfenique—sugar paste used to fashion skulls, fruits and other figures.
angelitos—"little angels," souls of children remembered on All Saints' Day.
atole—drink made from corn meal and water and flavored with fruits or chocolate.
calaca—a dancing skeleton figure who represents Death.
calavera—skull.
calaveras—songs, poems or satirical obituaries about the dead or Day of the Dead.
calaveritas de azúcar—sugar skulls, a Spanish tradition.
careta—mask worn by dancers to scare the dead away at the end of the festivities.
catrina—calaca satirizing upper-class society, first created by the artist José Guadalupe Posada
cempazuchitl—A brightly colored orange or yellow marigold, traditional flower of the dead.
copal—from copalli, the Nahuatl word for resin, used to make incense.
Dia de Todos los Santos—November 1, All Saints' Day.
Dia de los Difuntos—another name for Dia de los Muertos.
dulce de calabaza—candied pumpkin
fieles difuntos—"the faithful dead"
mole—sauce made from chiles, sesame seeds, herbs, spices, chocolate and fruit.
niños limbos—"children in limbo," who died before baptism.
ofrenda—offerings or gifts set out for the dead, or the actual altar.
pan de los muertos—sweet "Bread of the Dead" in many shapes and sizes
papel picado—colorful and intricate paper cut-outs used as decoration in celebrations.
pulque—fermented alcoholic drink made from the mezcal plant.
tequila—distilled alcoholic drink made from the mezcal plant.

Sources:
San Miguel Designs: http://www.sanmigueldesigns.com/index.asp
Las Culturas: