Dia de los Muertos commemorations deeply rooted in city’s past

To know San Antonio is to understand that this is a town essentially Mexican… and that the way to see the town at its liveliest and gayest is to take part in one of the fiestas of the folk. In these fiestas, with the exception of a few severely religious rites, nobody is merely a spectator: everybody takes part. There are two kinds of fiestas, secular and religious. But often the two are intermingled.

Charles Ramsdell, San Antonio: A Historical and Pictorial Guide, 1959

When I first moved to San Antonio in the late 1970s, I not only lived here but had to write about it. Almost immediately, I found myself having to come up with monthly features on the city. Pre-Internet. Charles Ramsdell’s 1959 edition of San Antonio: A Historical and Pictorial Guide became my adopted textbook.

San Antonio was love at first sight. It snagged my affection with my future in-laws’ fresh lime margaritas and a deep dive into a Border Patrol Special – the works – at Karam’s. Its Mexican-ness seduced me, particularly under Ramsdell’s tutelage.

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Postcard from Naples, Italy: Praying to free poor souls from purgatory

Lucia (viewed through a protective mesh screen) is the most loved soul. The skull with the bridal veil, adorned with a precious crown, is kept next to a pair of skulls that, in the popular imagination, represent the servants of the young girl, a young princess who died very young immediately after the wedding. To this soul the popular tradition has dedicated a small altar electing her as protector of the brides and mediator for prayers and invocations.

from the website of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco

What happens to an unfortunate Catholic soul who was good his or her entire life save some technicality, such as not being able to utter that last confession or receive the final last rite of extreme unction from a priest? Or who was left with an accumulation of unconfessed venial sins, such as losing patience, blurting out abusive language or hating one’s neighbor enough to wish evil upon him?

There is a spot for those departed, but if falls a short of heaven. Purgatory.

Purgatory, sometimes described as a purifying fire, need only be temporary – provided those on earth pray for them. In Naples, there are those faithful who devote themselves with fervor to freeing souls for their flights up to heaven.

Some refer to those practitioners as members of a cult of the dead. Results of their assistance in caring for the skulls of those who died lacking requisite sacraments regarded as keys to heaven were seen in an earlier post about Cimetero delle Fontanelle.

But Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco is not as remote as that cavernous home for skulls. Built in 1638, the church is in the heart of Naples. The church dedicated to the faithful praying for those in purgatory is a handsome one, but the hypogeum, an underground church with crypts, garners the attention of followers of the cult of pezzentelle, or souls in purgatory.

The ancient cult of the Purgatory Souls, guarded for centuries in the underground of the 17th-century Church of Santa Maria of the souls of Purgatory in Arco, arose spontaneously, at the beginning of 1600, when the new counter-reformation church proposed the care of the souls of the dead as one of the principal religious practices to establish, through prayers and masses in suffrage, a liturgical link between the living and the dead…. The living, as a means to atone for earthly sins, were concerned with fostering the ascent of souls to Paradise and assuring them of the coolness of the flames of Purgatory during the period of tribulation….

The relationship is established through the adoption of a skull, which according to tradition is the seat of the soul, which is chosen, cared for, looked after and hosted in special niches. The pezzentella soul (from the Latin petere: asking to obtain), anonymous or abandoned soul, invokes the refrisco, the alleviation of the sentence; and the person who adopted it, the person in life, asks for grace and assistance….

The grates that connect the street and underground enable voices, the cries, the prayers to reach at any time the skull, which enjoys the protection. A thought, a flower, a lit candle, support the hard fight for Paradise the souls of Purgatory generously welcome in the vast Underground of the church.

from the website of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco

While the Catholic church unsuccessfully has tried to extinguish the practices of the cult-like faithful, it seems reassuring that, if purgatory exists, there are people out there working to free the unfortunate souls trapped in its flames.

So many things those nuns never taught me…. Many of Roman Catholicism’s more interesting quirks never made it across the ocean to little Star of the Sea Church in Virginia Beach.

Destination Danzón: A Time Warp in Queretaro

The sidewalks and plazas in the historic center of Santiago de Queretaro were overflowing with pedestrians on a recent Sunday night, evidently a typical Sunday evening. Our host, Clyde Ellis, and his neighbor led us past a plaza where families were lined up to see an exhibition of National Geographic photographs, through the plaza with the dancing waters and past the one where a younger set was gathering for contemporary pop. 

Although stopping frequently to greet other neighbors encountered along the way, they were intent on the goal – Destination Danzón. And, having lingered at great length over a late lunch, we were late.

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Banda de Musica de Gobierno del Estado already was swinging into the first set of the Tradicional Serenata Dominical, and dancers were sashaying around the plaza. Selections included “New York” and Glenn Miller’s “De Buen Humor,” or “In the Mood.”

Cha-cha-cha transported me instantly back to the days of Sunday tea dances in Virginia Beach. The tea dances, inappropriately named as brown bags clothed bottles of bourbon and gin on virtually every table, were held outdoors across Atlantic Avenue from the old Cavalier Hotel. The huge round dance floor was roofless and surrounded by a double-decked gallery perched directly above the beach, so close to the ocean her hurricane-driven waves periodically would drag almost the entire structure out to sea.

I would watch my parents and their friends cha-cha-cha-ing around the polished wood dance floor to the big band sound of bands such as the Lester Lanin Orchestra. Cuban music was king, as the island was a popular vacation destination for ships cruising out of Norfolk.

One Sunday in particular came to my mind. I must have had new clothes, never before worn by my older sisters – a rarity. A starchy crinoline belled out the skirt of my smocked, puffed-sleeve dress, and lacy white anklets emerged from the top of shiny black patent leather Mary Jane shoes.

Longing to join the glamorous adults twirling on the dance floor, I remember dancing with one of the columns supporting the upper deck of the gallery. The mother of an older man – probably 8 years old and the only other child there – persuaded her son to ask me to dance.

The boy commanded a rather spirited lead at a pace restrained only marginally by the beat of the music. For a grand finale, he spun me around under his arm so fast I twirled out of control like a top, the slick soles of my Mary Janes flying out from under me as I landed plop on my bottom amidst raucous laughter from onlookers.

The dancers of Queretaro were well beyond my league as well. They greeted each number enthusiastically, although the band held out playing the even first danzón until the second set.

The danzón originated in Cuba but was exported to Vera Cruz, where it flourished and spread. Dancers pair off on the floor but refrain from taking the first steps until an orchestral cue on the fourth beat of bar four of the paseo, a cue much too subtle for me to catch until after the banda had played several. Tunes on the programa in Queretaro included “Siboney” and Gonzalo Bravo’s “La Negra,” and the evening closed with a spirited marcha, “Queretaro.”


Did we join the dancing Queretanos?

I am positive I could have danced with a lamppost on the plaza all night without the mister even being tempted to cut in to salvage my reputation.


But just as well. Despite awkwardly suffering through a season of Mrs. Sadler’s cotillion, my dancing skills have improved little through the years.

A six-year-old piled up in a crinoline pouf on the floor might be cute, but the woman she evolved into a half century or so later would not.

Note Added on March 24, 2012: Just noticed that the Instituto Cultural de Mexico in HemisFair Park is exhibiting photographs by Cristina Kahlo, “Tiempo de Danzón,” through the end of April.

Note Added on March 31, 2012: And a friend just emailed me that Salon Mexico if offering a danzón lesson from 7 to 10:30 p.m. on Friday, May 11, at the University of Incarnate Word.