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How Pascua Yaquis in Guadalupe honor deceased loved ones on Día de Muertos

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Carlos Valencia has called this tiny sliver of land south of Tempe, home for most of his life.

“This is essentially downtown Guadalupe. This is where everything happens in the community,” said Valencia. “When I was a little kid riding my bike, all this area was still kinda desert. That’s changed, you know, for the better.”

He and his family live about two blocks away from South Mountain Community College, where Valencia works as the Jobs for Arizona’s Graduates coordinator.

He also runs the Yaqui Pride Project, a grassroots group which focuses on preserving their language, history and culture. It’s also a conduit to help Yaquis reconnect with their homelands.

Benito Valencia, the first town resident to serve a full-term as chairman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, is one of his extended relatives. So, his familial roots run deep in Guadalupe.

Facing persecution in the 19th century, the Yaquis fled from their homelands in Mexico, and created communities across Arizona. Last week marked a pair of religious holidays for these tribal diasporas.

It’s the first day of November — All Souls Day — preceding Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

Yaqui communities in Tucson also observe this holiday, much like Yaquis across the southern border in Sonora. Even if their customs slightly differ.

“In Mexico, the mesita in the Yaqui language it’s referred to as the tapanco,” says Valencia. “So, you see the mesitas, they’re the tapancos.”

Back in Sonora, they use mesquite and bamboo to build their tapancos, but here in Guadalupe they’re using two-by-fours instead.

And they’re not the only tribal communities who honor it. Tohono O’odham and the Mayo, or Yoreme, who reside in Southern Sonora and Northern Sinaloa, also recognize this time.

Valencia started driving to the home of his wife’s oldest aunt. Along the way, he'd stop and point out some mesitas, or tall tables, decorated in front yards.

“They say a good Yaqui knows his history, knows where he comes from. Being Yaqui is hard,” Valencia added. “If you really look at the cultural calendar and the commitment that it takes. Our ancestors did it, and we try here.”

The prayers had already begun as we sat silently.

An elder maestro is flanked by his cantoras, or female singers, while leading a couple dozen of Valencia’s closest relatives in prayer around the mesita. It’s cloaked in a teal fabric covered with white lace cloth, and topped with a pink flower wreath pinned to a painted wooden cross.

They’re reading the names of deceased relatives from books. Families recite as many of their loved ones’ names, as far back as they can remember — typically starting with elders and ending with babies — even the unborn.

Young girls flutter flags blessing everything around them. The drawn-out dinging of a gold-colored hand bell signifies the end of certain prayers and onto the next, but this was the final one for today — before a bountiful feast would begin.

Filled with favorite foods of the deceased, the mesita was cleared by the family after these items were blessed and placed onto the driveway to be divided up and eaten. Gripping a wooden cane, the elder maestro crouches down to pour water in the shape of a cross underneath that table to finish this ceremony.

“About 40, 40 homes to go to — I myself, I got five left,” says Bonifacio Alvarez, the top maestro. “The other young guys can handle it.”

He’s one of five — two of whom even came from Sonora — to help fulfill this community’s cultural obligations. He goes from house to house to oversee the ceremonies.

They’ve already visited about 20 so far. When asked how he keeps going with his stamina, Alvarez answered: “I’m barely making it now.”

After he hobbled off, Patricia Martinez — the oldest of six aunts who hosted this year’s mesita with help from her siblings — asked her family, “Are you ready to eat?”

Beef stew. Tamales. Red chili cubes. Tortillas. And lots of other Yaqui dishes made up a homemade feast of local flavors.

“I’m the head cook now here in my family. And that’s how I learned how to cook,” Martinez elaborated, “because my mother and seeing other women — just watching, I learned and everything comes out good.”

This day is also a way to keep their language alive.

Learning Yaqui requires proficiency in both Spanish and English. “It’s so pretty to hear them. I hope everybody keeps up with their tradition,” says Martinez.

The U.S. Census estimates there’s about 1,600 households in Guadalupe — a town less than one square mile in size. More than two-thirds of all residents are members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

But with less than 4% of them requesting the presence of maestros, it’s unclear how much longer this Yaqui spiritual tradition will survive.

The next night on the actual Day of the Dead, Valencia paid respects to his mother, Maria Elena Valencia, and grandmother, Celestina Juliana Valencia, both of whom are buried in the Guadalupe Cemetery.

A pair of unpainted two-by-four wooden crosses mark their spots right along the cemetery’s eastern wall. Valencia explained that being one of the oldest families in town, “they’re all buried on the back end.”

Prior to that, their older crosses kept falling. So, his older brother asked him to assemble two new ones that he only put up a few months ago. “I think it's his way of saying, ‘If anything happens to me, this is where my mom and my grandma is,’” Valencia admitted.

“My mom, she wasn’t an elaborate person. She’s humble and didn’t really want any attention brought to her. This is a great example for her,” he added. “'I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t even care to have a marker.”

Even his great grandparents rest nearby, underneath the shade of a tree.

This cemetery is about five-acres. It was also the original land that the Yaquis lived on for years before then-President Woodrow Wilson granted them 40 acres in 1914, two years after Arizona became a state.

It’s even more fitting that Yaquis return to this historically and culturally rich site, especially during this time of year. “We come whenever we want. This is open every day,” said Valencia, “but obviously today’s a special day.”

Hundreds of families came with candles and offerings in hand as Matachine dancers shake gourd rattles. As Valencia looked around, he wondered: “Imagine if all of these families participated in it.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.