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'Day of the Dead' event gives a voice to a living community

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by Melanie Zuercher|

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – At first glance, a giant skull on wheels and children with painted faces seem to have little to do with community empowerment.

Yet that was the suggestion Hamilton Williams, Bethel College associate professor of social work, brought to the seniors in his Intervention in Human Systems class.

The purpose of the class, Williams says, is “to try and understand community organizing and to do something around diversity, for the whole community.”

Before coming to teach at Bethel two years ago, Williams was on the social work faculty at Western New Mexico University, Silver City. “When I first moved there,” he says, “my landlord invited me to join in preparing for the local Dia de los Muertos parade.”

It was a major event, he says, involving not only those of Mexican heritage but Native Americans and other groups as well. And after the Silver City parade, “we packed it all up and took everything to Tucson [Ariz.] for the largest Dia de los Muertos celebration in the country.”

Catholics, and some other Christian groups, celebrate Nov. 1 as All Saints’ Day and Nov. 2 as All Souls’ Day. The latter, in particular, is a time to pray for and remember family members and friends who have died.

In Mexico, Nov. 2 is an important holiday (in fact, a national holiday) on which families spend all day at the cemetery, cleaning and decorating the graves of their loved ones and enjoying a meal of the deceased's favorite foods.

So Williams was surprised to find, when he moved to Newton, that though there is a significant Hispanic population, most with roots in Mexico, and an active bilingual parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, there was no public celebration of el Dia de los Muertos.

Each fall, the Intervention in Human Systems class takes on one or several major projects that directly serve the local community in some way. When Williams suggested they could look into what it would take to organize a Dia de los Muertos parade, the 12 members of the class responded with enthusiasm.

One of the students, Leah Bartel of Golden, Colo., is working on a senior research project in which she has been interviewing people on their experience of immigration. She had gotten some names from Father Juan Garza at Our Lady of Guadalupe, so already had a connection with him.

Rosa Barrera, assistant to Bethel President Perry White, and her family are long-time members of Our Lady of Guadalupe. When Father Garza came to the parish about five years ago, she says, he began encouraging the congregation to celebrate el Dia de los Muertos.

And when the Bethel class approached Father Garza about a parade, he was delighted to join in the planning.

The class decided together the most important tasks to be completed, and then divided into four groups – one to work on media and publicity, one to contact local schools, one to contact local churches and one to get permission for the parade to take place.

The latter proved to be a big job, since the students had to get a signature from each business in the four blocks of Main Street they wanted the parade route to follow.

The whole class worked together for weeks to build a giant “La Calavera Catrina” float (“the Elegant Skull,” a staple of Mexican imagery often incorporated into artwork for el Dia de los Muertos), inviting anyone else on campus who wanted to join in.

“The Multicultural Student Union was a big help,” says Williams. “Gus Palacios [freshman from Austin, Texas] designed the hat and the hinged jaw [for La Catrina]. Others helped with the papier maché and painting, making paper flowers, decorating the church.”

Megan Upton-Tyner from the theater department stepped up to help with pre-parade face painting. The parade ended at Our Lady of Guadalupe church, where parish members had prepared food for sale, and where there was a bilingual worship service to which William Eash brought the Bethel College Concert Choir to sing.

“I had done this kind of face painting for an art project but not for a celebration of Day of the Dead,” says Elizabeth Akins, senior from Manhattan, Kan. “We looked at photos on the internet to figure out [what to do].”

Face painting for el Dia de los Muertos is not what you might imagine from your local school carnival, with a small decoration on a cheek. It's another way to evoke “La Catrina,” which means painting the whole face white and then adding details.

The face painting began two hours before the parade in a park near where it was supposed to start – and it proved to be one of the high points of the whole experience.

“A lot of the culture mixing went on at the face painting,” says Shayne Runnion, senior from Phillipsburg, Kan.

Once the parade got going, some members of the class walked along while others stayed behind to clean up at the park. Among the walkers was class member David Tedone, senior from North Richland Hills, Texas, who was dressed as a monk as part of a group carrying a coffin or lighting its way with torches.

“I was surprised when Father Garza asked me to be part of this,” Tedone says. “I think he remembered from when he first asked us if any of us were Catholic that I had said I was.”

Nonetheless, even though he grew up in Texas, Tedone had never celebrated el Dia de los Muertos. He says he enjoyed his first one and “it seemed like others were enjoying it,” as well.

“I was impressed with the turnout for the parade,” says Akins, “both people participating and watching. It was great that [the parish was] willing to include us in this.”

“It went really well for the first time,” Runnion adds. “I liked how kids would come running out and then join us, and that people came out to see.”

“I was a little skeptical,” Bartel admits. “It seemed like such a huge project and I didn’t think we could pull it off. But it went really well and I hope it keeps going – it’s a good tradition.

“It was a way to bring together Bethel and a part of Newton we aren't usually in contact with, and to experience another culture.”

Thanks to the 4,000 or so flyers the class printed and distributed, and Father Garza’s wide network of contacts, word about the Newton Dia de los Muertos parade got out into other parts of the state as well.

“At the Council of Social Work Educators for Kansas meeting in Topeka, they were talking about this,” Williams says. It turns out there is no other public Dia de los Muertos celebration elsewhere in Kansas.

Even more important, he says, the public celebration of el Dia de los Muertos “gives a voice to a minority culture and a day they can embrace [as theirs].”

At its heart, however, el Dia de los Muertos is, as Father Garza noted in his homily, a day to remember and honor “the souls of the faithful departed. They are in a better place, which is why there are many different colors, songs, feast, music, dancing, flowers – it’s a celebration of joy.

“Death is to go to sleep on earth,” he told the congregation, “and wake up in heaven.”

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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