Recuerda (And Celebrate Life) Muerte

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.

Born in San Antonio in 1934, the second of six children of an immigrant tradesman, Ramirez graduated from St. Mary's University with degrees in political science and education in the early 1960s. He aspired to a diplomatic posting in Mexico, but -- lacking the proper WASP connections -- settled for a job teaching English in South Vietnam and Central America for the Defense Department's Language Institute.

By the early 1970s, Ramirez's career was on the Washington fast track as chairman of the National Spanish Speaking Management Association, a D.C.-based research and management think tank. Insiders told him he was in line for a big federal job. Instead, he dropped out and moved back to Texas.

"I didn't need a 'big job,' " he recalls. "I needed to get back to my tortillas and my barrio."

Ramirez now serves as an ambassador of another kind, introducing U.S.-born Mexican-Americans to their own forgotten traditions.

"There are so many people who are surprised they didn't know about things like ofrendas," Ramirez confides. "But it is a tradition that Hispanics have kept private. I mean, what would your neighbors think if they saw sugar skulls and candles in your living room? The first time I saw one, I was a child at my grandmother's house in Oaxaca. With the candles and the skulls and the angels hovering in the smoke up above, it scared the hell out of me! But that's why I've gone public with teaching people about ofrendas, because they are a wonderful experience I want people to have. We Hispanics should share our cultural traditions, and this is one of our better ones."

Richard Reyes, the culturally attuned executive director of Talento Bilingue de Houston, is typical of the generation of Hispanics who learned about ofrendas only as adults.

"I was raised in Houston, so I didn't know about things like Day of the Dead," Reyes admits. "I had a misconception that it was Halloween with a different name. But Macario refined what it really was in my mind."

Now, Reyes says, the inner-city kids at his Talento Bilingue clamor for the chance to build the center's ofrendas each year. So far, his budding artists have memorialized everyone from Selena to grandparents and school friends killed in drive-by shootings.

"The kids love it because they look at it as a way to pay homage to someone they've lost or admire," Reyes says. "I like it because it makes them think about what their grandmothers did and were like."

Now that Ramirez's message about ofrendas has reached critical mass in Houston's Hispanic community, it is branching out, often in surprising ways. One Catholic priest is encouraging his parishioners to build ofrendas in the church vestibule. And several local family therapists have begun sending patients to Ramirez's gallery to see if ofrendas can help them come to terms with deep-seated feelings of loss and grief.

Jyl Scott-Reagan, a family therapist and clinical social worker, was already studying the use of rituals in healing when she stumbled across ofrendas at Casa Ramirez several years ago. Since then, she has sent about a dozen clients to the gallery.

"I tell them to just go visit, to see if making something like that would be beneficial to them," she explains. "It's art therapy, in a way. But an ofrenda is a very personal work of art with the capacity to touch people very deeply."

Scott-Reagan says she has long advised clients burdened by unresolved grief to visit the graves of their loved ones and hold imaginary conversations with the deceased. But she believes the hands-on experience of building an ofrenda may be even more helpful by immersing a grieving individual in nonverbal communication.

"Talk therapy is very effective with a lot of people," Scott-Reagan explains. "But to be able to look at and take in the ofrenda's visual images and objects seems to help some people deal with a pain that goes beyond words."

Ramirez nods when the therapist's comments are repeated to him. "So often, when we lose someone, there is something left unresolved ... a gap," he says. "An ofrenda is a way to build a bridge back across that gap and remember the better part of that person and yourself. It brings closure and a healing of sorts, when you look at that person's photographs and touch their things."

The word "ofrenda" is most directly translated into English as altar, or an offering. Unfortunately, that's led some people to misinterpret the ofrenda's purpose.

"They are afraid we are adoring a human instead of God," Ramirez says, rolling his eyes. "This is not ancestor worship. It's a way to pay tribute. But every year we get several crank calls from people asking us if we are Satan worshipers."

One area churchman who has embraced the tradition is Father Adam McClosky of St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Community in northwest Houston. Three years ago, McClosky asked a parishioner whose husband had been killed in a fire to build an altar in his memory for All Saints' Day, the Catholic holiday that is the common root of both Halloween and Day of the Dead. McClosky says he can't imagine why more religious leaders aren't interested in ofrendas as a means to address mortality in a spiritual context. But he confesses he had to do a bit of explaining at first so his flock "wouldn't be frightened" by the unusual altars.

"We live in a society that so completely denies death," the priest says. "This is a way of saying our loved ones, though gone, are not forgotten. It is a way of celebrating life, not death. It is poking fun at death, saying that death is not the last word. Eternal life is."

Casa Ramirez is an art gallery in only the loosest sense of the word. Shoehorned between thrift shops run by the Good Samaritan and Volunteers of America, the border-town style tienda is a contained riot of vibrant handicrafts and folk art. Delicately hammered metal crosses share shelf space with brightly painted pottery and chain-smoking papier-mache skeletons; the walls groan under layers of textiles, terra-cotta crucifixes and vintage photos of Emilio Zapata and Pancho Villa.

While selling trinkets and artifacts is Ramirez's livelihood, teaching the culture that produces the artwork is his mission. He is in the process of changing the gallery's formal name to Folkart and Cultural Traditions to better reflect that real mission, which Ramirez says he inherited from his father, along with the family stories.

Macario's father, Jesus H. Ramirez, was a skilled craftsman whose fingers were all but amputated in a sheet-metal shop accident as a young man. He supported his family with migrant farm work, trade jobs and occasional sales of the intricately crafted jewelry he made in his spare time. While he worked, he talking passionately and unceasingly about Mexican history, family members, cultural traditions and values.

His father's desire to communicate the important things from one generation to the next led Macario into the folk art business shortly after the elder Ramirez's death in 1982.

"I wanted to connect with my father ... as an artist and a historian," Ramirez explains. "With this gallery, I've taken it beyond what he had always dreamt of doing -- to take folk art to this level and share it with the community. I know he would've loved to do this. It is a mission in me -- as it was in him -- to assist our culture in this way and preserve our traditions. I come from a wonderful, living culture. I don't want to see it die."

Though Ramirez can take credit for revitalizing the ofrenda tradition, it has clearly grown beyond him. And like some progeny, it has become something he can't control and doesn't always like.

For instance, the Lawndale Art and Performance Center on Main Street has been hosting Day of the Dead exhibits that include ofrendas for almost a decade. But the quirky urban artists at Lawndale don't exactly do things Macario's way.

Where Ramirez encourages people to directly translate Mexican cultural traditions to their present lives, Lawndale wants people to use them for inspiration, as artistic springboards into something the abuelos never intended. Ramirez was offended last year by the lewd and irreverent content in some of Lawndale's Day of the Dead exhibits.

"Their ofrendas have deteriorated to the point where they are not what they should be," he says. "That 'Frankenstein/Dracula' syndrome has ruined them. I want to tell Lawndale, 'Don't take this wonderful thing and make it other than what it is.' It is a wonderful cultural tradition, and we don't mind sharing. But Abasta! Get it back on track."

Lawndale executive director Mary Ross Taylor is sympathetic to Ramirez's concerns, but unapologetic for her artists' excesses.

"They're not being irreverent; they're just artists being artists," Taylor insists. "It's been a long time since we tried to contain our artists to traditional content, and we scarcely think that would work. But this year we are trying to telegraph to the public that these are not authentically traditional works, but rather a contemporary take on a traditional idea.

"We may have a collision [between Ramirez and the artists] again this year," she adds with a shrug. "But I plan to let 'em collide. Because that's what happens in an art center."

Ramirez remains firm in his conviction that, if you're going to borrow someone's cultural tradition, you should respect it enough to do it properly.

"Lawndale saw a cultural opportunity and pounced on it," he avers. "Day of the Dead has been a great fundraiser for them. This is not about Macario. I have to let them know they're not getting it right."

Lawndale's Taylor declines to be drawn into a debate with Ramirez over authenticity versus interpretation.

"Lawndale has been doing Day of the Dead for nine years, but Macario is the one who has had the impact and raised the public awareness of the tradition," she says graciously. "What he has done is magnificent."

Ramirez takes great care in selecting the Houstonians he invites to create ofrendas in his gallery. This year, Casa Ramirez will again feature 12 altars that will be on display beginning Friday, October 25, and continuing through Sunday, November 10. Among them is a memorial by Raul Castillo to his late uncle, Jose Teodoro Castillo, who died in 1977.

"He was the single biggest influence in my life," says Castillo, the director of benefits administration for the Houston Fireman's Relief and Retirement Fund. "He got me interested in politics, and he taught me to have empathy for people and to appreciate my culture. I worshipped the guy."

Castillo's "Tio Teo" was a master electrician, a well-known car salesman and a political activist in San Antonio who helped write the platform for the Raza Unida party in the early 1970s. He was also a hell of a pool player. His nephew's altar to Jose Castillo includes some of his electricians' tools, a copy of the Raza Unida platform and a roll of electrical wire fashioned into a wreath and a crucifix, along with an old tool belt, a pool cue and three balls and recent picture of Jose Castillo's seven daughters and one son.

Raul Castillo speaks lovingly of his uncle, recalling how Jose Castillo encouraged him to get his college degree and the times they had together when Raul, after graduating, lived with his uncle's family.

"He was my age when he died -- I'm 47," he says, "and I got to thinking that I've come this far, and I hope somehow that I've impacted somebody else's life, the way he impacted mine."

Irene Garza Estrada built an ofrenda to the grandparents who raised her after being encouraged to do so by Agapito Sanchez, whose black-and-white photographs are often displayed at Casa Ramirez. Garza won an essay contest on "Celebrating Our Hispanic Elders" this year at the University of Houston, and Sanchez had taken the photographs that accompanied an exhibit on the contest.

"I thoroughly enjoyed doing this," says Garza, 35, who's the assistant to the director of operations at Landmark Graphics. "It's a great way of keeping your memories. People tend to forget about their loved ones who've passed away. As far as I'm concerned, they're still with us."

Last year, Ramirez offered one of the gallery's ofrenda slots to photographer Sanchez, who lost his adored sister Sandy to cancer 11 years ago but had never come to terms with her death.

"I thought I was over Sandy's death, but I didn't realize how emotional it still was for me," says Sanchez, who was so overcome by memories that he was unable to complete his ofrenda. "I had been building altars for her at home for five years. But when I did one there in public, the emotions just came rushing back all too fast."

Like so many other 30ish and 40ish Hispanics in the city, Sanchez was raised ignorant of most of the cultural traditions that are his birthright. His immigrant parents were so busy striving to get ahead and assimilate themselves and their children that "culture kind of went to the side," Sanchez recalls.

"But as I get older," he says, "I'm looking deeper into my roots and my culture. And I find that it's been there all along. I'm sorry I missed out on it.

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