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Dia de los Muertos celebration in Dunedin canceled this year by hurricane

By Sharon Kennedy Wynne
At last year's Dia de los Muertos, Casa Tina owner Tina Marie Avila (crouching) shows her "Ofrenda," or Day of the Dead alter. What would have been the 25th annual Dia de los Muertos Fiesta on Saturday had to be canceled this year because of Hurricane Irma. The folk festival will be back next year. JIM DAMASKE | Times (2016)

Chalk up one more closure to Hurricane Irma: The huge Dia de los Muertos Fiesta originally planned for Saturday in Dunedin has been scrapped for what would have been its 25th year.

Tina Avila, the co-owner of the funky Dunedin restaurant Casa Tina that has hosted the Mexican heritage celebration since 1992, said it was a "heart-breaking" decision. But when Hurricane Irma ripped through Dunedin on Sept. 10, many of the giant puppets used in the annual Day of the Dead parade were damaged, as was the storage area the restaurant uses to store its many folk artifacts. The restaurant was closed for a week and then, Avila said, she didn’t have the heart to ask the hundreds of volunteers typically needed for their time.

"People were under so much stress, we didn’t think it was fair to ask people to volunteer their time," Avila said. "And I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m only just now recovered at home with our cleanup."

The restaurant has been hosting a Day of the Dead celebration since 1992 and in the last eight years even moved outside to Pioneer Park where 5,000 people were drawn to a free celebration of Mexican heritage. The annual holiday pays reverence to loved ones who have died. It holds a deep spiritual meaning for restaurant owners Javier and Tina Avila.

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It has always been intended as gift to the community, Tina Avila said, one that cost them more than $5,000 in fees, security and entertainment to teach the public about the significance of the holiday as well as the history and culture of Mexico. It had grown to include performances, a play written by Avila, a fashion show, live music, Mexican food and folk art for sale.

"It was kind of a victim of its own success," Avila said. "It had grown so big, we couldn’t just turn it around after the hurricane."

It will be back again next year, she said. Even though Cinco de Mayo is the restaurant’s biggest annual event, this one holds more meaning to them personally.

"This is one that is most dear to us, so it was really heartbreaking to have to cancel."

Although the event is planned close to Halloween, it’s not about black cats and zombies. Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican tradition dating back to pre-Columbian times honoring the deceased.

Amid incense-laden candlelit altars with photos and sugar skulls, the crowd carries candles as they join in a giant puppet procession featuring music and story telling.

The Avilas, who own two restaurants on Main Street, Casa Tina and Pan Y Vino, as well as the Orange Crate Cafe, which sits adjacent to the Pinellas Trail, have celebrated Dia de los Muertos ever since Casa Tina opened 25 years ago.

"But it really grew for us after Tina and I went with our daughter to Patzcuaro, Mexico, to see the celebration there,’’ said Javier in a 2014 interview with the Times. Javier grew up in Guadalajara but did not celebrate the Day of the Dead as a child in a Christian family.

"To see it in Patzcuaro, which is known for having a really big Dia de los Muertos, was so emotional. People paid such attention to the details of the person who died. It was incredible. It made me think of my father. I cried, and (my daughter) Amanda cried, seeing me cry,’’ he said. "It is about evoking deep memories.’’

"We have loved introducing this to Dunedin,’’ he said. "We see this as a little present to thank the community and our customers, and we get to show them the customs of Mexico.’’

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.