Recuerda (And Celebrate Life) Muerte

Macario Ramirez is reconnecting Mexican-Americans to a forgotten cultural tradition and their own pasts. It's a tradition that Anglos are embracing, too.

Smoothly, gently, with the air of a gesture carried out thousands of times, Macario Ramirez strikes a match and lifts it to the wick of the candle. As the flame catches, it flares and reflects in Ramirez's wire-rimmed glasses, followed by the flicker of another and another. Gently, he cups his hands and wafts them back and forth over the rose-scented candles, stirring their aroma with that of the mole sauce, the steaming tamales and frijoles, the cinnamon-sugar-flecked pan de muerto and frothy mug of cafe con leche laid out on the ofrenda he has built to honor his dead father. Alongside them on the rough-hewed altar rests his father's marriage certificate, some silvery wire jewelry and a favorite sweater, which Ramirez fingers lovingly. But he no longer sees the candles and mementos. His eyes are closed. He's lost, not in prayer but remembrance.

He is a boy again, squatting in the dust at his father's knee outside the family's home in San Antonio. He watches his father's gnarled, disfigured hands as they grip the jeweler's pliers and gently, lovingly, twist and bend the silver wire into intricate Mexican earrings. He hears his father's voice telling him, once again, about the Zapatistas who sparked the revolution in Mexico almost a century ago, about his grandmother in Oaxaca who used to wear earrings like these, and about other, long-gone members of the family.

"My father wanted me to know who I was," Ramirez says, "to know where I was from and what was important. He wanted to pass his heritage on to me so I would be able to remember."

Ramirez turns his head and gazes down the long side wall of his crowded Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery on 19th Street in the Heights. A dozen or so people strung out along the wall are lighting their own candles, rearranging mementos and losing themselves in memories before their own homemade ofrendas, built in tribute to vanished loved ones and times gone by.

Ramirez smiles, knowing that all across Houston this week and next, hundreds of people will be lighting candles before their own ofrendas. In doing so, they will reconnect with their past, reclaim their dead and re-ignite an all-but forgotten cultural tradition, thanks in no small part to Macario Ramirez's one-man crusade to reintroduce his fellow Mexican-Americans to the ancient Mexican custom of ofrendas.

"The sign out front says 'folk art gallery,' but I teach Mexican culture, because we Hispanics are losing it big time," Ramirez explains softly. "It is an awesome responsibility. But I do as much as I'm able to keep the traditions alive, because they are valuable and worth keeping.

"People tell me I have played a major role in seeing some of the traditions brought back. The ofrendas in particular seem to be rippling out from the gallery. Last year, I got calls about them from as far away as California, Michigan, Wisconsin and Colorado. But I'd love to make them more than a ripple. I'd love to make them a big, big wave. I want to have a multiplier effect and share this beautiful custom that is something all Americans can do."

You can seldom trace the reintroduction of a cultural tradition to one man. But you can with ofrendas. Fifteen years ago, before Ramirez began teaching the pre-Conquistador ritual for honoring one's ancestors, only a handful of Houston Hispanics had ever heard of the folk altars. But with Ramirez's help, ofrendas have firmly taken root in the city and are now spreading vigorously across ethnic and geographic boundaries.

You may see an ofrenda somewhere in Houston this week and pass right on by, not knowing what it is and perhaps finding yourself vaguely disturbed by the sight of a rough folk altar adorned with grinning sugar skulls, candles and food offerings. Most non-Hispanics and even many Hispanics don't recognize ofrendas for what they are: memorial tableaux built to celebrate someone special who is no longer here ... a beloved parent, a lost child or even a friend claimed by violence or disease.

"Most cultures have a way of remembering their ancestors, but we Americans have gotten away from that," Ramirez explains. "We've not done well at facing death and remembering our dead; Americans have failed that course. So there's something empty in our lives. We need to wake up to this wonderful celebration of life and death. Ofrendas are all about remembering. You pull out old family photos that are packed away in the attic and the favorite things that belonged to those loved ones. Ofrendas have nothing to do with Halloween. They are a celebration of life."

Ramirez has been teaching his neighbors about ofrendas and Dia de los Muertos -- Day of the Dead, of which the altars are an integral part -- since the early 1980s, first from his home and then from small galleries in El Mercado del Sol and the Heights.

A tall, dignified man with close-cropped gray curls and warm brown eyes, Ramirez at first glance appears to be an unlikely cultural revolutionary. But while his customary garb of guayabara shirt and khaki slacks might mark him as a campesino, Ramirez's courtly speech and uncanny calm betray his State Department training and the diplomat he almost was.

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