Dia de Los Muertos

November 2, 2009

I am in Denver, Colorado, with my husband who has a job here for a couple of days. I’m tucked into a luxurious hotel room, grading freshman philosophy midterms, and recovering from my life.

In the past few weeks, I’ve celebrated the birthday of a daughter who is no longer alive, borne witness to the terminal prognosis of a dear friend, sat with her though her swift dying, bathed her body for a vigil, planned her memorial service with her family, and then officiated the ceremony on her 58th birthday this past Friday, October 30, which also happened to be the 8th anniversary of my daughter’s death. I drove up to the mountains with my family earlier that day and decorated the descanso, the celtic cross, at the place where Jenny died, a custom we observe every year. It always gives me comfort to make something of beauty on that day.

A couple of years after Jenny died, I was visiting the little village of Teotitlan del Valle in the mountains outside Oaxaca with my mother and sister. My parents have spent many years working on collaborative weaving projects with the Zapotec Indian families who live there, and these families have become family to them. It was early November when we arrived at the home of Florentino and Eloisa for a midday meal they had prepared to honor us. The large altar that fills the entire end of the main room of every Zapotec home was still covered with dried marigold blossoms from Dia de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, a holiday of major significance in Mexican culture in general and among the Zapotec in particular.

On what is called All Saints Day in the Catholic liturgical calendar, Latinos all over the Americas gather with family and friends to pray for and remember loved ones who have died. They build individual altars honoring the deceased, decorating them with skulls made from spun sugar, marigolds, and the favorite foods and drinks of the departed. They also visit the graves with these offerings. There is drinking, making of music, dancing in the streets. It is a ritual characterized by humor and irreverence, a thumbing of the nose at Death. As with many holidays in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Dia de Los Muertos has its roots in indigenous traditions that date back thousands of years.

When my mother reminded her friends on that November day about the recent death of her granddaughter, the father of the household turned to me, his eyes shining. “Your daughter died at a very auspicious time,” he told me. “During these days of the dead, the gates of heaven are wide open. And it is the children who lead the way.” The surge of relief that filled my heart in that moment has never left me. And I don’t even believe in heaven or hell!

Yesterday, as I held up the push bar my husband was installing on the ballroom door so that he could properly position his cordless drill, the hotel maintenance man wandered over to watch. He was small and dark, with a powerful Indian profile. When he asked if we were almost finished, I made a little joke in Spanish. This piqued his interest. Latinos always seem surprised and pleased to discover a huera (white girl) who speaks Spanish. As we began to chat, I asked if he was from Oaxaca, and he said he was. He is a Mixe Indian. We had a brief but fascinating conversation about the small pueblo where he grew up in the mountains, without electricity, communications, or even a road.

When I asked if he was observing Dia de Los Muertos today, his eyes grew sad. “Ay, you should have seen the way we celebrated in mi pueblo,” he sighed. And I could only imagine: the village church bells would ring at 3 p.m, echoed by the clanging of individual hand bells in the courtyards of every casa in the village, calling the dead back home for this one day of the year, when the veils between the worlds are thin enough to make contact with the ones we once loved. Offerings of frothy cacao, sweet breads, mescal. A path of flower petals to guide their way. Laughter, longing, connection.

My Mixe friend explained that he is alone here in the U.S, except for his 25-year-old son, who lives with him. They do not have access to the things they need to celebrate this holy ritual: community; cemetery; the foods of the dead. He shrugged. Li modo. Just then his cell phone rang. It was his son. “Mi’jo,” he said. And he switched into the ancient and lyrical Mixe language. I stood in wonder for a moment, and then I pushed the elevator button. He bowed to me as the door slid closed. I wondered what brought him here to the north, what forces were strong enough to separate him from his traditional culture, what stresses he endured to get here to this city, and whether it was all worth it.

In my community of Taos, people celebrate Dia de Los Muertos every year with incredible energy and creativity. Diverse households – Spanish, Indian, and Anglo – set up altars with pictures of all their loved ones who have died, offerings of flowers, treats, prayers written on slips of paper, some symbol of an idiosyncrasy that represents the deceased. Jenny’s altar would include cheese tortellini with pesto, homemade chocolate chip cookies, a book of Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, bright blue baggy pants, a statue of Hanuman, Hindu monkey deity, God’s best friend.

Wherever you are, you might consider implementing this custom and prepare an altar of your own this time of year. Make it beautiful, quirky, representing whatever was unique and peculiar about the ones you loved who have died. You do not have to be Christian or even religious to embrace the beauty and healing power of this holiday. It is another worthy container into which you can pour your free-floating love.

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