DUNEDIN — The sun sliced through the papel picado, pink and yellow flags with a cast of grinning skulls and dancing bones.
Friday morning was brisk and calm. Javier Avila sat alone on the brick steps of Pioneer Park, grabbed a flat brown luminaria and laced the ends together so it sat upright. Candles. Candles were important.
"You must put candles at the altar," he said.
Folks in Dunedin know Javier and his wife, Tina. They know they own the popular restaurant Casa Tina, plus two others. They know their menu has short ribs in dry red chili sauce, but they don't know why. They know they throw the biggest Day of the Dead party in town, but they don't know why.
Javier surveyed the grass and considered the transformation.
"It's working," he said. "Little by little."
• • •
Dia de los Muertos is the day the souls come back.
It was to Javier what grotesque masks are to kids on Halloween. He was the youngest of five in a Catholic family from Guadalajara, Mexico. They didn't celebrate the holiday like Mexicans in the country. City dwellers found it morose, pagan even. The hollow eyes, the summoning of spirits.
"I was a little bit scared," said Javier, 59. "Well, not a little bit."
Tina found it fascinating. In America, where she grew up, we have a funeral once. We have eulogies once, and they're sad. In Mexico, they remember people every year with candy and tequila.
Javier's father, Don Nacho, had died in 2001. Maybe they could go to Mexico for Day of the Dead. See what the whole thing was about.
It was 2003. They picked the town of Patzcuaro, known for its huge celebration. They arrived to a parade of skull masks, people singing with mariachis, carrying stacks of sod and marigolds. They burned copal, a ceremonial incense thought to lead spirits to the grave.
The parade led to a cemetery, where families planted flowers on graves and offered bread and sugar skulls on banana leaves. Children toted balloons. Men sipped tequila. Women stood in a row soaking corn husks for tamales.
Javier carried Don Nacho's pictures in his wallet. He felt something in his gut, a stirring, like he might break any second.
He started to speak of his father.
Not tall, but significant. Striking aqua eyes, Roman nose. Always macho, usually romantic, sometimes difficult. Loved short ribs in dry red chili sauce.
They told stories.
There was the time Don Nacho serenaded Tina on her first trip to Mexico. De las lunas, la de Octubre es mas hermosa. Of all the moons, October's is the most beautiful.
And how Don Nacho woke every day at 5 a.m., blared the radio and ground carrots and oranges to make his breakfast licuado.
And the time Javier, 4 years old, rode his tricycle down the bustling highways of Guadalajara. How a frantic Don Nacho's aqua eyes flickered when he finally spotted the boy. How Javier thought he was going to get walloped, but instead got a fierce hug, a cascade of tears and a look of subtle admiration his father just couldn't hide.
Javier cried, and cried.
As the sun came up and the spirits left, the candles went out.
• • •
Javier walked into the entrance of Casa Tina on Friday.
Down the street in the couple's warehouse were giant skeleton puppets and skulls on sticks. Around shops downtown were other altars inspired by Casa Tina. Everything would converge today at the biggest yet of their Day of the Dead celebrations.
Don Nacho's picture sat on the altar, plus photos of Javier's mother and Tina's grandparents. There was a packet of copal. Pesos from Don Nacho's pocket. A bottle of Jack Daniels. A tweed hat.
"He wore that all the time," said Javier.
"He looked like Ronald Reagan from the movies, big chested with high pants," said Tina, 44.
There were candles, a lot of them, and a glittering pink Jesus Christ statue below a skeleton and a sign:
Calaca — Whimsical skeleton figure representing death. Mexican Indians believe that death is a part of life and the dead should be honored not feared.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.