Dia de los Muer­tos ed­u­cates, cel­e­brates

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Local News - By Denise M. Wat­son Staff writer

The hol­i­day is not ‘Mex­i­can Hal­loween’

NEW­PORT NEWS — Peo­ple were dy­ing for a mo­ment with Lady Death.

Satur­day af­ter­noon, chil­dren smiled up into her pale, white face as she slid through the Dia de los Muer­tos, or “Day of the Dead” event, at the Penin­sula Fine Arts Cen­ter. Adults stopped her for self­ies, tak­ing in her color­ful lay­ers of pink, black and blue, and the crys­tals shim­mer­ing around her eyes.

“You have noth­ing to fear with Lady Death,” Michelle Horner Grau said to the crowd.

Grau, in­struc­tor of Span­ish and Teach­ing English to Speak­ers of Other Lan­guages at Christo­pher New­port Univer­sity, spoke to the packed au­di­ence in the mu­seum’s main hall to ex­plain the his­tory and im­por­tance of the Mex­i­can tra­di­tion.

Lady Death, or Ca­t­rina as she is known, is a help­ful, play­ful guide for those who die and be­gin their next jour­ney, she said.

Dia de los Muer­tos isn’t about “doom and gloom,” Grau said. “In Mex­ico, it’s a happy time to re­mem­ber peo­ple who’ve gone be­fore us.”

The mu­seum started the annual event five years ago to rec­og­nize the area’s grow­ing His­panic pop­u­la­tion, said Court­ney Gard­ner, PFAC’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor

Re­ports from the city of New­port News show that His­pan­ics were the fastest grow­ing de­mo­graphic, in­creas­ing 92 per­cent from 2000 to 2014, ac­cord­ing to the city’s web­site.

The event is also a time to dis­pel myths and ed­u­cate.

Dia de los Muer­tos runs from Nov. 1-2, and is not “a Mex­i­can Hal­loween,” Grau said.

It is cen­turies old and is the blend­ing of Aztec In­dian tra­di­tions with Catholic cus­toms that were brought with Span­ish in­vaders in the 16th cen­tury. On Nov. 1, fam­i­lies tra­di­tion­ally dec­o­rate the gravesites with items the per­sons loved, such as bot­tles of fa­vorite wines, foods and flow­ers.

On Nov. 2, fam­i­lies of­ten cre­ate al­tars or “ofren­das” in their homes and cover them with photos of those who have died, can­dles and re­li­gious sym­bols.

A few pro­test­ers showed up the first year, Gard­ner said, be­cause they thought the cel­e­bra­tion had some­thing to do with devil wor­ship.

At Satur­day’s event, chil­dren had their faces painted to re­sem­ble “calav­eras” or skulls. Chil­dren cre­ated but­tons to re­mem­ber a de­parted rel­a­tive and sat on the side­walk in the sun and used chalk to draw trib­utes to de­ceased rel­a­tives.

Grau and Maria del Rosario Olea-Cruz, who was Lady Death, kept large crowds en­gaged as mem­bers of the au­di­ence helped Grau com­plete a com­mu­nity ofrenda.

Chil­dren stepped close to Olea-Cruz and Grau as Grau ex­plained the sym­bol­ism of items for the al­tar. Each rep­re­sents fire, earth, air and wa­ter, she said.

Can­dles, Grau said, would help light the way of the de­parted. A wash cloth and a bar of soap are in­cluded to keep loved ones clean dur­ing the jour­ney. Wa­ter, fruit and bread, a sweet loaf called “pan de muerto” would be in­cluded on most al­tars. Flow­ers are of­ten used to mark the path to the af­ter­life, and are usu­ally marigolds, which grow well in Mex­ico this time of year.

Olea-Cruz, who is from Mex­ico, par­tic­i­pates in the event be­cause she en­joys teach­ing oth­ers about the “beau­ti­ful tra­di­tion,” she said.

The ofrenda in her New­port News home has been up since Oct. 28 and she and her hus­band have added can­dles, foods and photos to it each day.

“For me, I can teach oth­ers some of our dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions,” she said. “And it is a happy day for us.” Denise M. Wat­son, 757-446-2504, denise.wat­son @pi­lo­ton­line.com

BILL TIER­NAN/SPE­CIAL TO THE VIR­GINIAN-PI­LOT

El­iza June Skees, 5, of Wil­liams­burg, holds still as Kristy Clewis puts the fin­ish­ing touches on her face paint on Satur­day.

Maria del Rosario Olea-Cruz was Ca­t­rina, rep­re­sent­ing Lady Death, at the Penin­sula Fine Arts Cen­ter on Satur­day.

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