I was very young when I learned about death. It wasn’t in a talk with my parents about what happened to our pet parrot, or the turtle we found on the highway, or one of the several other pets we had. No, I learned about death with a celebration, which is arguably the least traumatic way to learn about such heavy subject as a child. I must have been a lot younger when I participated in my first Día de los Muertos celebration, but the first one that I can dig up in my memory is from age five or six. At this time, we still lived in our birthplace, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.
On the first day of November, the streets leading up to the Cementerio Municipal de San Pedro Garza García would be closed to traffic and filled with puestos selling food, colorful candies, skull heads, and candied skull heads, flowers and traditional Mexican toys, usually ones that could make noise. The streets were alive with color, music, and chatter. Many people had painted faces, some sang, others danced, and most of us marched up the hilly street to the cemetery gates.
I recall my younger brother and I following Mom as we sucked on sticks of caña (sugarcane), like we were playing wind instruments on mute. Caña was usually the one treat we’d get Dad to buy us, which was just as satisfying as the Mexican candy and toys we were denied. The colorful visuals and the lively music were the eye and ear candy that made this day one of my favorites. We didn’t celebrate Halloween in Mexico. In fact, I only recall one time when we went to the rich neighborhoods where we knocked on their undecorated houses in our regular clothes with painted faces, chanting “Noche de brujas, Halloween.” I don’t know if it was because Halloween was not such a big deal, or if rich people were not very generous, but we didn’t even get to fill our plastic Soriana bags.
Once we entered the cemetery, it felt like we entered another dimension. The colors and the music bled in, and suddenly we had grown into giants. The lapidas and tumbas were like small buildings and houses of different shapes, colors and sizes that it was as though we walked through a miniature city. We followed Mom to the first tumba where she’d introduce us to her great grandparents, grandmother and tío Nayo, who all shared the same lot—partly because it was economical, but mostly because you live together in this life and so, too, in the other life. Because that is what death is, not just a part of life, but another life after this one.
As we stood around the tumba, Mom took out the food she had brought with her—pan dulce, pollo en mole con arroz, frijoles, tamales—and placed it near the headstone. A rather unlikely place for a picnic, but this was not food for us; it was for them. Everyone around us brought food and drinks for their loved ones who had passed on to the next life. This was their one time out of the year when they’d get to once again enjoy their favorite things from their former lives, not just food, though it was always food and whatever else they would likely not have in their new life.
This is how Mexico celebrates los muertos WITH los muertos. On this day, we meet each other in the middle, in the border between this life and the next, and we celebrate together.
A few years later, our family migrated north to Los Angeles, and the moment we set foot on U.S. soil, our Mexican traditions were compromised. We no longer celebrated Día de los Muertos. Now we celebrated Halloween and Thanksgiving and the Forth of July. It wasn’t a conscious choice; it was just the new norm in the new life. It was as if we had moved on and left our loved ones—living and unliving—behind when we crossed the border.
Ten years after our migration, death came for one of us. Dad died just as he set foot in Mexico on a visit, as if he had predicted it when he told us we would only live in the U.S. for ten years and then go back home. He did. We did not. It took a whole week for Mom and my oldest sister to get his body back in the U.S. I like to think it was Dad’s way of resisting.
He now rests in a grassy cemetery, next to a freeway and across a shopping mall, hardly a convenient place for a proper Día de los Muertos celebration. The headstones are all black rectangles buried on the ground, it’s always quiet, and the only colors other than green are from the occasional flowers by some graves, or the miniature Christmas trees that are allowed to stay on for longer than the usual weekly removal and clean up schedule allows. Dad’s remains are surrounded by strangers, near an unused, grassy space where the grandkids he never met race each other when they visit. We go visit when we can, not usually together as a family. Never on November 1st. That’s not a day we’ve celebrated in such a long time. Perhaps we can change that this year and revive our tradition.
Knowing Dad, the life of the party that he was, his body came back to the U.S., but I think his spirit stayed back in his native home. It’s why when I visit his grave it feels like I’m leaving him a message in his mailbox.
Yajaira (pronounced thx-a-lot-mom-n-dad) earned a B.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing and a minor in French from the University of California, Davis, where she wrote for the student paper The Davis Beat. She is alarmingly obsessed with music and is completely incapable of writing and creating without it. She is eternally grateful to past crushes who have helped prepare her to deal with rejection, which has been invaluable in her pursuit of the title “published author.” Some of her prose has appeared in Ruminate Magazine and the Ruminate Magazine Blog.
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