Migrant Faith

In this Jan. 24 photo, Father Kevin McDonough holds Mass at the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus church in Minneapolis for a two-day celebration.

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — In Midwestern boots or bare feet in sandals, the faithful walked in procession down a snow-covered street here, keeping the rhythm of festive music and carrying paintings of St. Paul, the patron saint of their hometown of Axochiapan, Mexico.

For the thousands of migrants from the south Mexico town 2,200 miles away who have built new lives in Minnesota over the last two decades, throwing a wild, two-day bash for St. Paul’s Catholic feast day in January is a crucial way to celebrate their roots and feel a bit more at home, closer to the families they left behind.

“It’s even more important because we brought it here,” says Apolinar Morales, this year’s steward of the celebration, who left Axochiapan in 1989. “The meaning is not to lose our traditions, so that they can be kept alive, even though we’re far. And we want our kids and grandkids to remember this.”

He estimates that more than a third of Axochiapan’s residents migrated to the United States, most of them about 20 years ago, when the celebration started here. The festival here is especially important for those participants who can’t go home for the month-long celebration in Axochiapan because of their immigration status.

Most are raising U.S. children for whom this feast is the biggest chance to be immersed in the Mexican part of their identities. It helps them learn to live the faith of their ancestors, instead of just sticking the venerated painting of St. Paul in a corner, as Morales, 50, fears the younger generations would do.

“Our families (in Axochiapan) are happy because we’re enjoying the same celebration in the same way as they are — well, except it’s hot there,” said, grinning, Silverio Camilo. On the feast’s vigil, he stirred with a yard-long wooden spatula some 120 lbs. of corn dough slowly cooking in Morales’ suburban garage as flurries fell steadily outside.

Volunteers like him didn’t sleep for a few days to prepare the chicken tamale and mole dinners they would serve to the 1,200 people who participate in Masses, processions and dances at the Church of the Incarnation/Sagrado Corazón in south Minneapolis. To sacrifice time and money as an offering of faith is just as central to honoring St. Paul as the exuberant dancing, many said.

“Faith is to believe that you make an effort and in return get joy and maybe a blessing” such as work, said Camilo, who was a teen when he came from Axochiapan 22 years ago.

The sense of belonging found in faith and its rituals is crucial to many migrant communities.

“Religion provides one of the few culturally familiar and deeply rooted places available to them,” said the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the priest of this diverse parish. He started his homily by telling the several hundred faithful his counterpart in Axochiapan had phoned to wish them a happy holiday.

On the last night, incense smoke from smoldering embers of copal, a tropical tree, wafted among the giant candles as the procession returned in the darkness to the church, where more hours of dancing followed in front of a massive altar festooned with banners celebrating “San Pablo Apóstol” and “Minneapolis patronal feast.” The banners, the copal, even most of the dancers’ handmade regalia came from Mexico for the occasion, but one man solemnly carrying a candle wore a Vikings cap.

“People feel comfortable, at home,” said Morales of this celebration that migrants like him took with them. “We’re proud that we brought it here to Minneapolis. I brought the best that I could.”

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