I grew up coming home from school, in late October, to a fragrant pot of green pumpkin slices bubbling in brown sugar on the stove and to find the kitchen sink and our bath tub overtaken by a riot of flowers in preparation for Día de los muertos.
On November 1st, we’d pile into our turbo-charged station wagon along with metal tubs full of flowers and head to the family cemetery plots on both sides of the border to sweep up fallen leaves and debris around the headstone, arrange fresh flowers, and to pray the rosary. If we were lucky, my mother would buy us a bright red candied apple as we left the main cemetery in Nogales, Sonora.
My grandmothers each had, I thought, elaborate altars. Nachu, my maternal grandmother had her very own little stucco chapel where she’d find solace among her beloved saints and flickering votive candles. Nana Herminia’s took up one entire wall in her bedroom complete with pious looking saints and Jesus on the cross, but it also camouflaged my grandmother’s safe where she stashed her important documents, collection of gold coins, jewelry, and piles of cash.
My experiences didn’t prepare me for the Día de los muertos we spent in Oaxaca after losing our daughter, Sofia.
Chapter IV – January 1994 to May 1995
“On November 1st, we toured the city from dawn to dusk, taking in everyone’s uniquely glorious altars and stories. We asked for permission to take photographs and the gracious folks of Oaxaca were honored. Since then, I’ve created our own altar and still show off the photographs, every year during Día de los muertos, and have lovingly named the slide show Altarcation.
At nightfall we joined a procession of noisy costumed merrymakers taunting the Grim Reaper as they wound through town and spilled into the main cemetery lit by hundreds if not thousands of candles where families gathered around tombstones to pay their respects in a bittersweet tradition accompanied by food, prayer, and music. Out of respect, Marty and I sat on the cemetery wall, keeping our distance, mesmerized by the open display of sorrow and suffering. I wept with them. My eyes landed on a row of tiny mounds of dirt, each punctuated with a small white cross, all flanked by a huddled family. A sliver of hope, like a jagged piece of broken coral, ascended and pushed against the tidal wave of anger and despair. At least Sofia was alive.”