Día de los muertos


Living in Oaxaca City, Mexico while the entire community shifted  tempo and unified to honor their loved ones, now gone, left an indelible imprint on my soul. Since 1994, the month of October sets in motion a parade of vivid memories of the preparation and lead up to el Día de los muertos, unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

During my childhood, my mother, La Jefita filled both bathtubs and the kitchen sink with white gladioli soaking its long-legged stems in water. On November 1st, she commandeered us to cemeteries on both sides of the Nogales border. Once there, we weeded and swept around the tombs where I tiptoed and made certain where my feet landed. Despite nearing thirteen, I still expected a Boris Karloff hand to yank me into the grave. As soon as the bouquets of gladioli graced the vases, we prayed, keeping one eye on the man selling candied red apples. I still remember the scraping of the brooms  and hushed tones from one end of the cemetery to the other. The chill in the air and the fragrance of slightly burned sugar.

I’d grown up among grandmothers, who each had elaborate altars year round. My maternal grandmother, Nachu retreated to a tiny white stucco, red-tiled chapel in her backyard. A sacred, candlelit nicho inured in sorrow and incense. Nana Herminia’s took up an entire wall in her bedroom. A crucifix crowned its center, la Virgen de Guadalupe, fresh flowers and candles meticulously set on crisp white linens, which camouflaged the safe underneath containing her valuables.

But nothing prepared me for Oaxaca. My Man and I roamed the city streets from dawn to midnight…


Visiting altars, mesmerized by the significance of each altar, from the arches and dazzling blood flowers to the handmade skulls and shimmering papel picado…

  A small corner of a plaza was transformed into an altar commemorating those who had died from smoking…

The aroma of mole lured us into finding this one at the entrance to this restaurant…
CHURCH SKULLThis paper mache skull was tall enough for me to walk inside…


As the sun set, we joined a raucous procession back into the city…

And walked with hundreds of people to one of the many cemeteries where loved ones kept vigil with music, food, prayer, and stories…

We watched from a distance while remembering and honoring our own.

An infertile woman’s Día de los muertos–Day of the Dead

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.”

Preparing for Day of the Dead–Día de los muertos

I had the good fortune to begin this year’s preparation for Día de los muertos at Lakeview Middle School in Watsonville, California the salad bowl of our nation! Like me, these young teens were raised by parents and grandparents whose bedroom dressers or living room corner hosted a simple altar with the trilogy of objects: La Virgen de Guadalupe or Jesus on the cross is a close second, a votive candle, and a small bouquet of flowers or cuttings from a fragrant fruit tree.

My Tía Angelita, placed a shot glass of water and blades of grass for the equestrian San Judas, who looked more like a gladiator than a saint.

I presented a slide show and spoke about our photo collection of Oaxacan altars and traditions to four different classes.

At times, I found it hard to speak as I watched the tears brimming while these students, homesick and dazed by English, added their experiences. More than once they’d needed to pause and control their quivering chins. I felt the weight of their grief and cried all the way back home. I cried for their losses and mine, too numerous to mention.

I’d told them to take advantage of this time and prepare and honor their loved ones by slowing down, taking time to think of their deceased loved ones and most important to cry. To cry alone or with a family member or friend, but to cry.

I took my own advice and sobbed. It felt so good to cry. To just weep as memories of my mother, my father, Sofia, and my dreams took over my heart. I wailed until chest stabbing hiccups took over. I blew my nose and felt some relief. Next I’ll begin to build my altar…