Dia de los Muertos in Sagrada Familia

Eduardo Dorantes – Unsplash

From an excerpt of my novel Agave Blues, TouchPointPress coming February 15, 2022.

I never understood – never took the time to understand – the concept of death, much less the whole Mexican custom of dealing con los muertos. And now with the thought of cancer weighing on me like the gran elefante taking up space in the center of our sala, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some connection. Was it true the concept of la sangre atrae — the blood calls you back? During this visit from el norte, I’d try to pay attention, try to ask questions and look for answers. Perhaps I might learn something helpful from my familia — find some clues.

Antonio, tan guapo (too bad he was my cousin, too bad I was dying), pulled his Ford Bronco up as close as he could to the church without even being struck dead. My uncle — whom everyone called Don Pio — and I stepped out onto the perimeter of the plaza. Antonio, practiced at avoiding crowds, then drove off with the skill necessary to dodge the hundreds of people already gathered, some to erect makeshift ofrendas and gravesites and others just to observe.

By evening time, every inch of the plaza would also be blanketed with flowers, prevalently marigolds, whose scent and vibrant reds, oranges and golds would guide the spirits to the candle-burning altars where dolls, toys, candies and the favorite foods of the deceased would also be lovingly placed. And, of course, there’d be tequila — barrels of it!

Family members and friends knelt in prayer; some beat their chest. Beneath the arches, around the plaza, streamers swung in the breeze, underneath which vendors sold their wares. Blasting the area like an air freshener were the mouth-watering aromas of favorite staples: frijoles, cebolla, aroz con pollo, nopalitos and elote. Platforms were raised for people to make speeches and sing folksongs. All around the square hung pictures of relatives who’d passed, all sorts of paper mache creatures swayed in the puff of wind. Aztec dancers jumped and bounced up and down with offerings of incense as several peasant-costumed women and children carried crosses, re-enacting a death scene, all against the backdrop of sad ballads sung by guitar-strumming mariachis.

Children scampered around in colorful hand-sewn get-ups. I sucked in a bittersweet breath when I noticed one little girl dressed as a skeleton princess pirouetting around her mother. The scene pitched me back to the time I took Lily out trick-or-treating.  My saucy, stubborn six year old, dressed as Jasmine from the Disney movie, insisted I could only accompany her if I dressed as Aladdin. The next year, she wanted nothing to do with me. No more magic carpet rides around the neighborhood. She wanted to be with her friends. Was that when it started – ended?

Another group of children, on their knees, chalked colorful messages to their abuelitos muertos; others drew flamboyant calaveras with giant empty eye sockets. Families cradled flower arrangements: some, simple bouquets, others, ostentatious creations on easels. Morbidly, I wondered how Lily might react when my time came. As strained as our relationship had been and as angry as she’d reacted, would she visit my grave?

Just as all of this activity took place in the mall at the front of the church, behind the iglesia in the graveyard, the same event also unfolded — as it did at the local cemetery, in private homes around the pueblo, and even throughout the country.

I followed my weary uncle as he hobbled up to the entrance of the church where my cousins stood waiting for us, alive and well. “How are things going out at the farm, Papá?” Angela asked, reaching out to embrace her weathered father. Smiling, she let go and then stretched her arms toward me.

“You’re looking much better since your visit to the farm,” she said. “The color has returned to your cheeks.”

Seriously? I caressed my face.

Ofelia smiled. “I told you it was the agave.”

Hmm? I laughed.

All together, we stepped into the church, walked up the aisle and entered a pew where I genuflected, making the sign of the cross. In the name of the Father, touch your forehead—so far, no electrical sparks—the Son, touch your heart, the floor hadn’t opened up to swallow me—and the Holy Spirit, touch each shoulder—still breathing. All good. The smell of incense overwhelmed me – the whole scene so overpowering – it’s a good thing I was already kneeling. I bowed my head, remembering as a little girl how the village had turned out to pay their respects. But I couldn’t recall this day ever being so grand, like some sort of Hollywood production. I’d taken it all for granted. At night, there’d be singing and dancing. There’d be contests for the best costumes and the greatest decorations in the various categories – like a night at the Oscars. I followed my family out after mass.

“Let’s pick something up to eat,” Angela said, pointing to a stand advertising “Esquites” creamy corn in a cup of mayonnaise, cojita cheese, garlic, and chile. Like Lazarus, the glands at the back of my tongue sprang to life. “And then we can go back to the house for some coffee and dessert.”

“More flan?” I swallowed the juices squirting in my mouth. My appetite had returned. “Wild caballos couldn’t keep me away.” And nothing would take me away again from mi familia. My insides warmed as if I’d finally found my place beside life’s hearth.

 I smiled at the irony. To think the reason I’d returned to Sagrada Familia was to take care of the business of Papá’s death, down here where death wasn’t treated as a business. Death was a celebration.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: