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“Come Out of Your Grief” Death and Commensality In the small town of Antonito, death tore apart the community, and people reknitted it with collective mourning, prayer, and commensality. As in many communities the world over, food played a significant role in rituals of death (Thursby 2006, 79). The preparation and consumption of customary foods reestablished a sense of normality, brought community members together, and gave them something to do (9). Death brought sadness, which food helped to alleviate, for, as Bakhtin has said, “sadness and food are incompatible.”1 Furthermore, food was a key part of many rituals. Those surrounding death were examples of what Van Gennep (1960) has called “rites of passage,” which are characterized by three phases: separation, transition, and incorporation.2 In Antonito people described three forms of commensality that were part of death rituals: the red chili dinner served at the wake (velorio) in the old days mediated the “separation” phase; the giving and eating of food at the home of the deceased’s family during the prefuneral mourning period represented “transition”; and the communal farewell dinner after the funeral involved “incorporation.” 9 Counihan_2PP.indd 168 Counihan_2PP.indd 168 8/20/09 10:15:26 AM 8/20/09 10:15:26 AM 169 Death and Commensality The Wake According to Celina Romero, the meal centered on red chili “was a tradition .” Helen Ruybal and Cordi Ornelas spoke in some detail about the traditional velorio, which took place at the home of the deceased probably through the 1960s.3 When the wake no longer took place at home, the midnight meal for the assembled mourners faded away, but the family still had to feed many visiting friends and relatives. CORDI ORNELAS ON FOODS AT THE WAKE Born in 1925, Cordi Ornelas remembered the events surrounding death in the 1930s and 1940s when she was growing up in El Rito. For funerals and weddings there was always red chili there. And the meat would boil until it was real soft. They had a dinner, and they fed everybody who came. That was interesting to me because when I was a little girl and a relative would die, then we would have the wakes. People would come, whether they were related or not, and then around midnight they would feed the people. They had mashed potatoes, and green chili, and red chili, and some kind of vegetable. Why red chili? Because it’s good, for one thing! It was very good. If you want to try it sometime, just boil a steak, or a round steak perhaps, until it’s good and tender, and then you cut it up into small portions if you want to lick your fingers. Make chili like that, and it is very good. It was an old custom that had been around long before I came. I think tortillas would have been too much trouble to make. They had bread, and I have seen for one of the wakes when an aunt of my dad died, they had an horno, and they were cooking bread in that. We had the Penitentes, have you heard about Penitentes? They would come and sing there. My dad was a carpenter of sorts, so he would make the coffin. Then the women would line it, usually with gray flannel, and then they would line the basket inside. The Penitentes would sing, and then they had a crying spell, and then they would sing some more. There was the hammering of the coffin, and the cooks were cooking in the kitchen. Singing, praying, wailing over the dead, and eating red chili were all part of the mourning rituals. Key players were the Penitentes.4 Each Counihan_2PP.indd 169 Counihan_2PP.indd 169 8/20/09 10:15:26 AM 8/20/09 10:15:26 AM A T O R T I L L A I S L I K E L I F E 170 group of Penitentes had a morada where they practiced prayer and religious rituals. They identified with the suffering of Christ and were said to practice self-flagellation. They were key mourners at the Holy Week rituals and at funerals.5 HELEN RUYBAL ON DEATH, VELORIOS, AND FUNERALS Helen Ruybal also mentioned that the Penitentes attended the wake at the home of the deceased. Helen’s recollections of death and its rituals spanned most of the twentieth century, starting from her girlhood in the 1920s. She remembered the chili dinner at the velorio...


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