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Donna’s Detroit: Woman passes on Day of Dead tradition

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

Southwest Detroit artist Mary A. Luevanos lugs a 25-pound sack of sugar into the common room of Grace in Action, a former Detroit funeral home repurposed as a church.

“This is like making a sand castle,” she tells her students as they knead a little bit of water and meringue powder into containers of sugar with their hands. “Just mix and mix. It’s very therapeutic.”

Luevanos, 74, is known as the abuelita, grandmother, of art and culture in southwest Detroit. Every year around this time, she holds workshops, teaching children and their parents how to make calaveras de azucar. These sugar skulls are a traditional folk art for the celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, the Mexican celebration honoring loved ones who have passed away.

At this workshop, some begin a second round of kneading, working pink or blue food coloring into the sugar for festively hued skulls. Luevanos distributes plastic molds with instructions to pack the prepared sugar in tightly, then invert the mold onto a scrap of cardboard to release the delicate calavera.

Although the kids are eager to decorate them, they had to let them sit on a table to harden for a few days so they could be handled.

When everyone returned for the decorating party, Luevanos had whipped up a batch of royal icing in bright colors to “paint” facial features and decorative flourishes onto the skulls. Many wrote the names of family members they wanted to remember on their calaveras.

Veronica Salinas, who was with her 3-year-old daughter, Itzel, wrote “Maria” on hers.

“This is for my mother,” she said.

With the skulls topped off with sequins and gems, each artist placed their treasure on the ofrenda, or altar, set up to memorialize the dead.

An ancient tradition

Dia de los Muertos coincides with the Catholic All Souls and All Saints Days, with Sunday set aside for honoring the spirits of children and Monday for adults who have passed on. Luevanos said the tradition pre-dates the introduction of Christianity to the Americas.

“It has nothing to do with Halloween, or scariness or horror,” she said.

“The Aztecs believed in making a joke out of death. Not that it was a horrible, horrible thing, but it was a time to celebrate.”

They feted their dead ancestors in the summer. Christian priests arriving in the 1500s saw the similarities between the European and New World traditions and moved the Aztec holiday to the fall to coincide with All Souls and All Saints Days in the hope of legitimizing what they considered a pagan ritual.

In parts of Mexico the celebrations take part in cemeteries where loved ones are interred. In others, and here in the United States, families often construct ofrendas to the dead. They are laden with flowers and candles and photographs of the person being remembered and with the things they loved in life, like their signature beer or brand of cigarette or their favorite foods.

“It’s a celebration of life,” Luevanos said. “If the spirit of my grandma were to come once a year to visit, I would have the stuff that she liked. For my dad I would have chiles rellenos and saxophones and jazz.”

“It’s fun and it’s,” she paused to look heavenward, “remembering the people that were here and all the joys that the celebration of life brings.”

A little of this, a little of that

Luevanos, a second-generation Mexican American, has lived her whole life in southwest Detroit, most of it teaching art and Mexican culture in schools, libraries, summer arts camps, the Detroit Recreation Department, Matrix Theatre Company and The Alley Project.

She is a founding board member of CLAVE — the Community of Latino Artists, Visionaries and Educators — promoting the arts in southwest Detroit.

Luevanos is an eclectic artist working in whatever medium strikes her at the moment, be it paint, clay, tile or sugar and icing.

Meghan Sobocienski of the Grace in Action congregation of Lutherans credits Luevanos with starting the elevation of street art in Southwest Detroit from gang grafitti and tagging to full-wall murals.

“I used to take the kids down under the viaducts to paint the walls,” Luevanos laughs.

The 74-year-old Luevanos enjoys her matriarchal status and she definitely gets her share of R-E-S-P-E-C-T. When she’s being interviewed, teenagers take breaks from their laptops to come over and chat and encourage her to tell one of her stories of Mexican folklore.

“I’m so fortunate to be around these young people who have been raised to cherish their elders,” Luevanos says, then laughs, “because I’m an elder.

“And the other reason I feel so blessed is culture and tradition,” she says. “I’m very blessed to be in this neighborhood.”

Go here to see a listing of businesses and organizations in Southwest Detroit that have Dia de Los Muertos ofrendas on display this week.