Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a time in which we commemorate and receive our loved ones from spirit world. We welcome them back into the physical world and celebrate them and honor them so that they may know they live in our hearts and memories, still. This tradition comes from the very complex and intricate collision of our ancestors, pre-Columbian cultures such as Mayan and Aztec, and Spanish invaders who forced Catholicism into the beliefs of the indigenous people. (Visit http://www.inside-mexico.com/featuredead.htm to learn more.)
The celebration of Día de los Muertos spans a three-day period. Rather than focusing on death as a tragic and morose experience, it allows us to accept death as part of a cycle in our lives, a transition to our next stage of growth and evolvement. By using humor to reflect on death and giving living characteristics to death, we are able to accept it as a mystical and transcendental process rather than a mysterious and ominous one.
My Tita Carmen lived an arduous and heartbreaking life, of which she spent 14 years as a farm worker following the circuit throughout the state of California, from Bakersfield to Salinas. The arthritis in her hands and hip would later be attributed to the back-breaking work she endured – from picking frozen grapes with her bare hands to bending down during 12 hour shifts to fill crates of strawberries, to the blistering work of cutting onion stalks. I imagine that maybe the cancer that invaded her lungs could be attributed to the pesticides sprayed in the fields she worked.
And yet, Tita Carmen loved life and she loved her family. She was and is the pillar of our family. She raised her children, helped raise my brothers and I, and played an incredible role in raising my daughter, Carmen Elida Mason. Though in her later years she endured four hip surgeries, she never allowed any of the hardships in her life to limit her free spirit. She loved going on weekend trips to Las Vegas, and recently we found all types of player cards from the nearby casinos in her drawers. In the last five years of her life she traveled to Cuba (twice), Hawaii, San Antonio, Texas, Veracruz, went on a cross-country trip through Mexico to Cancun with her siblings, embarked on a cruise, went on a weeklong camping trip to Big Sur, and endured a 7.2 earthquake while camping in San Felipe, the epicenter of the earthquake.
As her body lay in bed withering, she still had the ability to crack a joke, give a wink, and even share a smile. Even through her pain and discomfort, she worried about whether we were eating. Two days before she passed, she asked my daughter and me to bathe her and dress her – she didn’t want to wear a gown anymore. Though she was fatigued and somnolent, she still had the wherewithal to let me know which blouses she didn’t like – I had to take out four different blouses before she pointed to the one she liked. Tita Carmen always dressed very youthfully and always made sure she was fashionable. She never stopped dying her hair, and she made sure she got a pedicure and manicure once a month. She was always bugging my mom or me about getting her eyebrows waxed. I never saw any hair around her tattooed eyebrows, but she always insisted it was time for her waxing.
We are so afraid of dying, and yet we live in fear. What I learned from my Tita was the more we fear life, the more we will fear death. Life is about embracing everything, fully – the pain, the sadness, the joy, the excitement, and even death, for you can’t have one without the other. There is a spiritual beauty that comes from it all. Maybe what we are all most afraid of is the third death – when we stop being remembered and loved.
I’ve never committed to Catholicism, but I find myself celebrating Dia de los Muertos as a tribute to those things that my grandmother had a deep connection to. Continuing her costumes and traditions is my way of ensuring her legacy lives on. I even find myself including Jesus and La Virgen de Guadalupe in my prayers and meditation because I feel such a deeper connection with my grandmother through those religious beliefs that anchored her to spirit and peace.
I feel her spirit in everything I do and I know that she is not only a part of me, but she is with me supporting me through my journey, guiding my heart. When I’m cooking black beans the way she taught me, I feel her presence. Especially when I quietly inspect each bean to take out the ones that are too bruised or shriveled. In those undisturbed moments, I can really sense her presence. Or when I wash dishes in her mandil (Mexican Apron) and look out the window with nostalgia the way she used to. I not only sense her, but I become a personification of her. These are the ways in which I keep watering the roots that provide me the foundation and strength for how I live my life.
In Mexico, there is a belief that a person dies three times. The first time is when their spirit transcends from their body. The second time is when their physical body returns to mother earth. And the final death is when the person stops existing in the memory of his or her loved ones.
Each of us becomes a bigger whole of the person that once existed. In our DNA we carry the person’s suffering, their sacrifices, their strength, their wisdom, and their love. And only when we recognize our DNA as the manifestation of those spiritual links, do we allow for our ancestors to never experience the third death. Most importantly, it is in our journey to a higher self that we honor our ancestors and heritage.
“There is ancestral energy intertwined into all our DNA. As such, even if any of our parents abandon (leave) us, we know we have inner elders to call upon.” Frank de Jesus Acosta
The following is a literary calavera that I wrote for my Tita Carmen. Though literary calaveras are imaginary humorous, satirical, or political obituaries written for people who are still alive, I thought I’d use this as a means to recall some of her funny idiosyncrasies and her passing. It loses a lot of its humor and meaning when translated into English, so I am sharing it in Spanish.Ay Calaquita Chingona Te llevaste a mi Güera Le ganaste a La Llorona Y me dejaste el alma en pena . A mi Güerita comelona Como le gustaba comer Y no la tuvieras con hambre Porque te empezaba a joder . Ir al casino le encantaba Pa’ distraerse y jugar A las maquinitas les echaba Para poder ganar . Pero vino La Tiznada y la suerte le arranco La dejo con casi nada así fue como marchito . Siempre andaba de pata de perro Hasta que un día La Huesuda la paro Le dijo “Oye Mi Jarocha” Yo te llevo a bailar Danzón . Pero la Güera nada pendeja A La Huesuda le contesto “Oye mi Coatacha ya estoy muy vieja No me vez que camino con bastón?” . Pero La Huesuda por vencida no se daba Tarde o temprano la iba a convencer A mi Güera como la rondaba Y un día la invito a comer . Sabía que eso era su mas grande tentación La sentó a la mesa y antojitos le llevo Un platito de pozole, taquito de camarón, Enchiladas de mole y pastelito de pilón . Como las penas con pan son menos La Triste a la Güera le confeso “Ya llego tu hora” Pensando en su familia, se lamento . Entonces con dignidad, de la mesa Mi Güerita se levanto Se sacudió su mandil Y a su Coatacha le contesto . “La vida te da sorpresas Sorpresas te la vida” . En ese momento La Güera comprendió Que entra la vida y La Muerte Existe un gran complot . Se entrego a La Muerte con la misma convicción Que se entrego a la vida Porque en las dos existe Una hermosa harmonía . Y aunque su partida Nos dejo un hueco en el corazón A mi abuelita nadie la olvida En el cielo, ahora baila Danzón! My altar has pictures of loved ones whom I continue to commemorate. And though I don’t have pictures of those who came before my Great-Grandmother Cristina, I call upon them as my elders and guides. Today (November 2) is the last day of a 3 day celebration, in which I was able to strengthen my roots and connection to my heritage, my loved ones, and death. Though I always call upon my ancestors and know they are guiding me, this time of year allows me to see death as a beautiful process, a spiritual one, rather than eerie and gory. I got to cook the favorite dishes of my loved ones who have transcended, and welcome them to dinner, and speak their name through tears and laughter, and meditate. Yesterday was Dia de los Inocentes and today is Dia de los Muertos, and they are days intentionally dedicated to commemorate our loved ones, but beyond these days, we must create the intention to continue to connect with them through out the year. In a sense this is an opportunity to set new intentions and new ways to find deeper, meaningful connections to our past, strengthening our roots, to flourish beautifully in the future.