Day of the Dead comes alive in SW Detroit

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Detroit – — Gloria Rosas says real death comes when you have forgotten the dead.

"That's why I am honoring my husband," said Rosas, owner of Xochi's Gift Shop in Mexicantown. "He was the best thing that ever happened to me."

For the Day of the Dead, Rosas is celebrating her husband German's life with an ofrenda — an altar — in the shop they opened together 30 years ago. She's placed his photo at the top of the altar and added a few of his favorite things to draw in his spirit.

"We put things they used to enjoy, which is why I have the Don Julio tequila," she said.

For many residents of southwest Detroit, the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a time for celebrating loved ones lost, including family members, neighborhood heroes or even a celebrity or two. And although it coincides with the same time of year as Halloween, it has nothing to do with ghosts and candy.

The ofrenda at Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church celebrates the Day of the Dead by honoring victims of violence in Detroit and across the country.

"It's a way to share our culture, our traditions," said Rosas. "This is a very spiritual thing."

The Day of the Dead celebration is officially recognized on Nov. 1 and 2 and coincides with the Roman Catholic faith's All Saints' and All Souls' days. Many in the Mexican and Latin American cultures believe this is the time of year when the barrier between the world of the living and the land of the dead is thinnest, allowing the spirits of the beloved to return to earth.

In Mexico, families visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried to eat a meal and remember the deceased. Here, the ofrendas have the same function. Dedicated to one or several people, the ofrendas include photographs of the dead, their favorite foods and references to their favorite pastimes. It's not uncommon to see bottles of beer or Coke, a cigar or candy. Usually, there is water and salt to purify souls and pan de muerto, or the bread of the dead, to sate hungry stomachs.

It signals an acceptance of death and an opportunity to celebrate life.

"I'm still mourning my husband after six years, but I'm celebrating him, too. It's a mixed feeling," said Rosas.

Celebration and education

The Day of the Dead wasn't always such an important time in southwest Detroit, said Marisela Castañeda, who coordinated the ofrenda at the Clark Park Recreation Center, where several local artists set up altars.

"They would mention it growing up. I remember making the skulls when I was in school," said Castañeda, who grew up around the corner from the park in southwest Detroit. "This year, it's the first time everyone is working together and letting people know what is going on."

For years, local businesses have been welcoming suburban school kids for the Day of the Dead, sharing the culture and educating in the process. This year, the Southwest Detroit Business Association has put together a digital brochure highlighting community activities going on in the area.

Today, a Run of the Dead will take place through the historic Holy Cross and Woodmere cemeteries.

The business association has taken advantage of the interest in the Day of the Dead to highlight the diversity in southwest Detroit and bring attention to the 1,700 businesses, said chairman Michael Odom.

"Whether you believe it or not, you take advantage of it by giving thanks and honoring the memory of a loved one," said Odom. "It's not intended to be scary or horror. It's intended to give thanks for those who have gone on before you and remember how they touched your life."

It's become even more important now that people from outside the Hispanic population are moving into southwest Detroit, said Anthony Benavides, director of the Clark Park Coalition.

"New people are moving into our neighborhood and we want to let them know there is a culture here in southwest (Detroit)," said Benavides. "We want to extend their knowledge of that culture."

Victims of violence honored

The ofrendas have become integral to the public part of the celebration. Consuela Meade, a lifelong parishioner at Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church, has been creating one each year since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Each year is dedicated to a new topic.

"I started it because I thought we needed to be doing something for all those people," said the Warren resident. "I made a small one that first year and after that, it kept growing and growing."

This year, they are honoring victims of violence in cities across the globe. The cities are shown on a cross that hangs above an ofrenda that will eventually contain photos of parishioners who have died. Their hometown is first on the list.

"We have dedicated it to Detroit on top because we lose people here every week," said Meade.

At Cafe con Leche across from Clark Park, owner Jordi Carbonell invited a local artist to set up a large ofrenda in a corner of the coffee shop dedicated to "joven combatiente" or the "young warrior." Interspersed with bullets, a bucket of blood-red water and children's toys are names of youngsters who lost their lives: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Aiyana Stanley-Jones of Detroit and others.

It's a political take on the tradition, and Carbonell says he is happy to make space for it in his shop.

"I've had customers crying when they see this," he said. "For two weeks, I'm out of tables, but if people are going to talk about this, I don't mind losing the space."

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