MEXICO CITY — Mexicans cleaned the bones of dead relatives and decorated their graves with flowers and candy skulls. In Haiti, voodoo practitioners circled an iron cross at a cemetery and poured moonshine to honor their ancestors. Some Guatemalans held a wild race of horses to remember the dead.
Across the Western Hemisphere, people are paying homage to lost relatives in observances that began Thursday on All Saints Day and continue Friday with All Souls Day.
The combined celebration known in many places as the Day of the Dead is a particularly colorful and macabre festival in Mexico that harks back to the Aztecs but has become part of Roman Catholic traditions.
"In the European-Christian notion of death, our loved ones go far away and we're left to survive on our own. But in the Mexican case, in Andean countries, the world of the living and the dead co-exist," said Elio Masferrer, an anthropologist who focuses on religious studies in Mexico.
"The living seek help and protection from the dead, especially on the Day of the Dead," Masferrer said.
And while in the Judeo-Christian traditions, the dead go to either heaven or hell based on their behavior on Earth, many in Mesoamerica and Andean countries believe they work for the Gods and are supported by their family members still on Earth, he said.
"It's none of this playing a harp in a cloud, family members have to feed them and between today and tomorrow they will leave their favorite food at the table and leave the door open so they can walk in," Masferrer said.
Families across Mexico took picnics to cemeteries, decorated graves with marigolds and sprinkled holy water on the tombs of their loved ones.
A "rezador" or prayer man whispered The Lord's Prayer at a cemetery in Pomuch in the southeastern state of Campeche, while Paula Maria Cuc Euan, dusted off the bones of her parents.
"I've been doing this since they died," Cuc Euan said as she returned a femur to a wooden crate lined with padded fabric decorated with hand-knitted flowers. "My mom died 32 years ago, and I have been doing this ever since."
Across the border in Guatemala, jockeys drank alcohol before mounting horses on a ride known as "The Death Race." It is celebrated every year in Huehuetenango state, some 168 miles (270 kilometers) from the capital, and tradition holds that if a rider falls during the race it's a sign that farmers will enjoy an abundant harvest.
Peruvians flocked to cemeteries, from low-lying ones on the coast overlooking the Pacific to graveyards high in the snow-capped Andes.
Thousands crowded Lima's Virgen de Lourdes cemetery, the country's largest, to leave flower offerings and dance to Andean music. Hilarion Ramos, 79, left a bouquet of Incan lilies at the grave of his son who died in 1979 at age 2.
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