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Dead Alive

La Piñata bring the Day of the Dead to Forest Hills Cemetery
By SHAULA CLARK  |  November 7, 2008


Photos: El Dia de los Muertos
There's something surreal about following a trail of flickering lanterns into serene Forest Hills Cemetery, only to be greeted by a roaring bonfire, a gaudily shrouded ziggurat, and skull-masked children dancing in the twilight.

This is how Jamaica Plain's folkoric performance group La Piñataare celebrating "El Día de los Muertos," a Latin American holiday dedicated to communing with departed loved ones. For this festival, which La Piñata have dubbed "Tzompantli" (a term most closely associated with the fearsome wooden rack the Aztecs and Mayans used for displaying human skulls), onlookers crowd around the fire, which is set in a circle of fallen leaves that also contains several altars glittering with candles and covered in offerings. The largest one is a pyramid of stacked boxes wrapped in colored cloth and topped with a glowing skull — each step representing a level of life, from unborn babies to deceased elders.

For the ceremony's finale, kids in serapes and ankle rattles dance madly to drumbeats and flutes, kicking and twirling in a way that reminds me of the combat-booted rivetheads I'd seen clearing out the dance floor at ManRay. (Talk about remembering the dead.) The dancers take one last running loop around the fire, then go clattering off into the trees.

Now we're all invited to enter the circle, where we're entreated to feast on the peanuts, popcorn, cookies, and anise-flavored pan de muerto strewn on the candlelit altars. Many gringos are, it's clear, squeamish about snacking with the spirits. "Here! You can have a burrito!" our cheerful La Piñata MC exclaims, thrusting a foil-wrapped bundle at a middle-aged mom. She declines. "You are going to say no to me?!" our hostess challenges, playful (and yet totally not kidding). Mom lady eats that burrito.

As the festivities wind down, I warm my hands and wonder whether celebrating this Hispanic holiday in our northerly clime drives the metaphor home harder — because a night like this one, with winter beginning to leach away the light and warmth, does feel a little like death.

Related: Everybody get together, Photos: El Dia de los Muertos, Schools of thought, More more >
  Topics: Live Reviews , Day of the Dead, forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain
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