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A tradition that gives dead their due

There's nothing Halloweenish about Dia de los Muertos: No haunted houses, no costumes, no candy and no knocking on doors.

Instead, the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday, is about communing with lost loved ones. It's an ancient spiritual ritual that has been practiced in Mexico for centuries.

The tradition will be celebrated across North Pinellas this weekend, including a public ceremony at 5 p.m. Sunday at Casa Tina Gourmet Mexican and Vegetarian Cuisine restaurant at 369 Main St. in Dunedin.

Tina Avila, who owns Casa Tina with her husband, Javier, said she hopes people learn about the celebration at her restaurant.

"A lot of people didn't really understand the holiday," said Avila. "They thought maybe it was morbid. I feel this is a great way to educate people."

Dia de los Muertos usually starts on Nov. 1, when Mexicans spend the day preparing for the arrival of the dead. They create an altar, where they display pictures of their lost loved ones.

Then on Sunday, the celebrating starts. The family takes a trip to the cemetery, decorates the grave sites of family members and prays for their salvation.

"It has a celebratory sense," said Sandra Cypees, a University of Maryland faculty member and an expert on the holiday. "It's not meant to be scary. It has a sense of real reverence and recognition of the dead."

The celebration dates back to ancient Aztec and Meso-American civilizations, where it was observed for an entire month. The Spanish Conquistadors landing in Mexico were shocked to find people celebrating the dead with food and dance.

They considered the ritual sacrilegious and tried unsuccessfully to eliminate it. Instead, to make the ritual more Christian, they moved it to coincide with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

Avila has an offering in the restaurant to honor her deceased father-in-law and her grandparents. She is preparing a special dinner that will include tamales, pumpkin soup, sweet pumpkin with ice cream and Mexican coffee.

Meanwhile in Clearwater, St. Cecelia Catholic Church will have a service at 8 p.m. Sunday. Father Ed Wal has asked his parishioners to bring names of their dearly departed to beread during mass.

"In some areas, they have big festivals and parades," said Robin Gomez of Clearwater, who is from Hidalgo, a state in central Mexico. "Primarily it's just to pay respect to the deceased. You pray for everybody's soul."

For Victoria Duran, who lives in Clearwater, this weekend is a big deal. The Mexican immigrant has five dead family members to honor.

She will spend Saturday setting her table with their pictures, candles and flowers. She will make their favorite foods.

"Their (spirits) are supposed to be coming in the early morning," said Duran, who works in Mexico-Lindo grocery store. "They're going to come and see what they love."