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Honoring the dead

BIGELOW -- Students of the Worthington Area Language Academy are celebrating a rather unusual holiday today at their school in Bigelow.

Each year in Central and South American culture, citizens set aside Nov. 1 and 2 to honor those who have gone before them. Dia De Los Muertos -- translated as Day of the Dead -- honors the spirits of adults who have died. Tuesday was Dia De Los Angelitos, to honor the children, or little angels, who have died.

While "Day of the Dead" may imply it is a sad holiday, the opposite is true, according to Leann Enninga, a special education teacher at WALA. An element of Central and South American culture is to celebrate the lives of family members and friends who are deceased, as well as to welcome the spirits back for a visit. The celebration is also recognized in American Indian history.

"People sort of think of (Dia De Los Muertos) as being morbid, but this is reality -- it's the cycle of life," Enninga said.

Students at WALA, in addition to helping construct a pair of altars on the school's stage to honor the dead, have spent time in the classroom learning how different countries in South America celebrate the holiday.

In Guatemala, for instance, people gather at cemeteries on Dia De Los Muertos for a celebration of fireworks that, in ancient culture, was believed to call the dead. The event includes a contest to honor the family with the largest, most beautiful display of fireworks.

In Mexico, people typically erect an altar in their home filled with photos of the deceased. The altar will include a candle for each spirit, along with the individual's favorite foods, perhaps a deck of cards or gift, and even items such as a bottle of shampoo and hairbrush. A path is constructed of candles and cut paper to help the spirit find its way through the home. Flowers are also used in the display -- most commonly the marigold because of its vast amount of petals, which is considered to symbolize a large Mexican family.

Before Christianity, when Paganism was still practiced, people believed the spirit would come back just as the family remembered them, alive and well. Hence, they believed the spirit was hungry and unclean, and may have wanted to eat, or wash their hair. Today, the tradition of the altar continues even though the beliefs may not.

Anisabel Palma, WALA business manager, and Sandra Haley, a paraprofessional in the school, constructed the altars along with paths that led from the stage doors. Students cut designs in colored paper, drew skeletons and colored pictures for the celebration.

"Students brought in photos of family members, food, pop and juice," Palma said.

Colors used in the display represent facets of the Mexican culture, she added. Pink is used for celebration, purple represents pain and suffering, red signifies life and green is for hope.

"It's a marvelous tradition," said Enninga, adding that in American culture, while people grieve, they tend to forget about their ancestors in time. Dia De Los Muertos, on the other hand, celebrates the deceased every year so they are not forgotten.

"In Mexican tradition, people die three deaths," Palma said. "The first is when our body stops (to function), the second is when the body is buried, and the third happens when no one remembers them."

"That is why this is such an important celebration," Enninga said. "When they no longer remember the person, they are dead."

The public is invited to visit WALA to see the Dia De Los Muertos display anytime during school hours, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, within the next two weeks. Groups or organizations wanting to visit outside of school hours may call WALA at 683-2004 to arrange a time.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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