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Lizett Mata, Alondra Salis, Yoselin Alvarado, Valeria Salis and Jessica Torres, parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe, danced traditional Mexican dances at a Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Florissant on Oct. 8.
Lizett Mata, Alondra Salis, Yoselin Alvarado, Valeria Salis and Jessica Torres, parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe, danced traditional Mexican dances at a Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Florissant on Oct. 8.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Our Lady of Guadalupe dancers link Gospel, culture

Dia de los Muertos celebration in cemetery is part of effort to bring people together

Our Lady of Guadalupe School seventh-grader Yoselin Alvarado, wearing a colorful, traditional Mexican dress, joined five members of her parish dance group at a Dia de los Muertos celebration in Sacred Heart Cemetery in Florissant.

Her mom parked along the circle drive, and Yoselin joined her cohorts in waiting for the early evening’s events to begin. They made last-minute adjustments to their wardrobes and chatted about their day before receiving a few instructions on the proceedings.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrations typically occur over a two-day period on Nov. 1 and 2 — the Catholic Church’s feast days of All Saints and All Souls. This celebration was Oct. 8, recorded for a virtual event Wednesday, Oct. 28, at the Missouri History Museum. The dancers from the parish also were recorded earlier at the Missouri History Museum.

Yoselin, age 12, has been part of the dance group for about eight years, joining when they first began performing at parish fish fries during Lent.

She enjoys going to various places to perform, wearing the dresses and doing the dance steps. “I was born here, but I enjoy presenting my Mexican culture,” Yoselin said.

The Dance Guadalupe contingent from Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson took part in the procession to an altar where people held up a sampling of traditional food they brought and a photo of a deceased relative or friend they were remembering. They then placed those items at the altar, and some spoke briefly about their lost loved ones. Father Eric Olsen, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, led a prayer service.

Once the formal part of the event concluded, people shared in the food, music and the dances of the parish dance group.

Hispanic Festival Inc. in collaboration with the Missouri History Museum put together a video highlighting a Dia de los Muertos celebration. On Oct. 8, they did a South American celebration and the next weekend a Mexican celebration. The traditions are somewhat different, said Elisa Bender of the Hispanic Festival, whose mother’s heritage is from Bolivia. The South American celebration was set up near the gravesite of her brother and aunt.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish has been a bilingual, multi-cultural parish since 1993. Part of the way they proclaim acceptance and hope in honor of the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe is through the dance ministry, bringing people of all nationalities and languages together.

Lizett Mata, artistic director, called it a missionary ministry. Mata, who was born in Mexico, volunteered to lead the group, she said, “to proclaim the Gospel” and mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe and to evangelize.

She was happy to respond to invitations to various festivals and sites in the St. Louis area to connect the culture and religious traditions with others.

The History Museum connection is an important one to highlight the Day of the Dead, she said, but there’s also many local traditions around the Day of the Cross, Las Posadas and Christmas, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and more.

The dancers, all volunteers, are age 5 and up. She cited a dance called indigenous to her home state of Guanajuato called “La Danza del Torito” or “The Dance of the Little Bull” traditionally performed at the time of the feast day honoring a local patron saint or a special event. It incorporates themes of life and death, good and bad. “It’s an easy way through stories and dance to promote Catholicism. We have really reached a lot of people,” she said, adding that it is a way of bringing Latinos together with others they wouldn’t normally encounter.

“A lot of our members have been able to integrate socially with the community and go to places they probably wouldn’t attend without this ministry. We are always very welcome everywhere, and I think they feel that feeling and love of God through this ministry.”

With COVID-19, dancers practice and stay in contact virtually. They offer their efforts to people who are sick. Mata tells them that “every little thing that you do, with your body and mind, you offer to God.”

A group member also provides them spiritual readings in order to keep them connected to the Gospel. Father Olsen has taught them about the virtues. “We try to bring them an understanding of how to be a good Catholic in our community and outside the community,” Mata said.

Ministry of Dance Guadalupe

OBJECTIVE: To educate children, youth and adults who love their culture and traditions, to spread the music, dance and traditions of Mexican folklore, and thus serve the community with acceptance and hope.

MISSION: Promote Mexican culture through dance, music and typical costumes, upholding the traditions and customs of origin with a distinctive style and original character, with the purpose of presenting a show that is appreciated by people of diverse backgrounds, nationalities and cultures.

Donations to support the ministry may be sent to Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, 1115 S. Florissant Road, St. Louis, MO 63121 or online at bit.ly/2T7Saq4.

Dia de los Muertos 

Dia de los Muertos originated among indigenous cultures, including the Aztec, Toltec and Nahua people, who considered death a continuation of life and not something to be mourned, but celebrated. Today, it is a fusion of Catholic beliefs brought by the Spanish and some of the original indigenous traditions.

The Aztecs, for example, had a festival dedicated to the goddess, Mictecacihuatl, the “lady of the dead.” It is said that she watches over the bones of the dead and swallows the stars during the day. The Catholic Church calls to mind the fact of earthly death and the promise of eternal life especially All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

Many people spend the day visiting their deceased loved ones at the cemetery, sometimes followed by a party with food, music and activities.

The tradition is a happy occasion, focusing on the good memories of those who have died, and to pray for their souls. The month of November typically is a time to pray for the souls of the deceased. Catholics believe that our souls remain intact, even after death. We are obliged to pray for the salvation of the souls of the deceased, with the hope that they eventually will be united with Christ in heaven. Our Christian hope is that our bodies and souls are united again through the resurrection when Christ returns.

Dia de los Muertos festivities vary widely throughout the different regions of Mexico and Latin America countries. Traditions run from solemn rituals that pay tribute to deceased relatives to brightly colored celebrations of incredible costumes and face painting.

For many, building altars to deceased loved ones is the focal point of the Day of the Dead celebrations. These ritual altars can be built in family homes, cemeteries, and even in public spaces. Friends and families will decorate them with offerings for their loved ones. Typical items include candles, photographs of the deceased, and their favorite food and drink.

Remembering

An image of Michael Kenyon was among the items on a Día de Muertos altar at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Florissant. Kenyon is the son of Elena Garcia Kenyon, a parishioner from Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston
Elena García Kenyon, a parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, remembered her late son during a Dia de los Muertos celebration Oct. 8 at Sacred Heart Parish in Florissant. The event was held early rather than around All Souls Day and All Saints Day because it was recorded for a virtual event.

Kenyon, a native of Spain, spoke about her son Michael, the youngest of her three boys. He served his country as a member of the U.S. Air Force. She was proud of his service, “such an honorable job,” she said. He died at age 32 of a heart attack while at home for a visit.

She prepared his favorite food, a Spanish tortilla, for the Oct. 8 celebration.

It’s all about remembering “our dear ones” who died and receiving support, Kenyon said. “We take it very seriously and profound when a member of the family dies. This moment symbolizes the other life. We are firm believers that they are with God, and God is their best companion.”

The Missouri History Museum is hosting the virtual Día de los Muertos celebration in collaboration with the Hispanic Festival Inc. on Wednesday, Oct. 28. Altars and original artwork will be on display in person at the museum in Forest Park from Oct. 28 through Nov. 8.

The virtual event will be released on YouTube with dance performances, cemetery celebrations and traditions, paper flower making, and face painting. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, with free advance registration required. Artwork will be on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. while altars may be viewed from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.


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