It’s a quiet and reverent morning in Queretaro. Here, and in every city and pueblo across Mexico today, the people are washing the tombs of their dead loved ones and preparing to feast with them in the graveyards. Anything but morbid, Dia dos Muertos seems to me a celebration of life. If you can’t make it to the grave site, you setup an altar in your home to honor your loved ones and invite their spirits back to visit you.
The altars can be as simple as that of Ramon and Irma, my neighbors in Colonia San Javier who run the little fruit and vegetable tienda I visit each morning on my way to school. Yesterday they invited me into their apartment behind the store to see their altar. Muy sensillo, very simple, they insisted, as they bid me in, down a narrow hallway, past the inventory of refrescos, and into a cramped kitchen space where, on the round dining table sat a pair of framed black and white photos of their parents, a bottle of Nicaraguan rum for the dad, along with his favorite shot glass, and a cup and saucer for the mom’s daily café con leche. The candle was lit, as Irma explained, to help the spirits find their way back.
You can make an alter too, the couple insisted. I had in my mind something much more elaborate, like the towering and sprawling altars I’d seen in the Centro, embellished with marigolds or cenpasuchil, bright orange bursts of color symbolizing the harvest and attracting and guiding the souls; altars arranged with hundreds of candles, paper mache skulls, piles of fruits, limes, oranges and goiabas, cakes and cookies and delicate sugar-spun candies, bottles of tequila and wine…homages to heroes and governors and writers.
Or, like our Peace Corps alter, a homage to John F. Kennedy and Elvis, that we volunteer trainees decorated yesterday after class, with colorful tissue paper cutouts and and the special paper mache calavera made by Nancy Ho, who had to leave Mexico and return home to tend to sick family.
No, mine didn’t need to be so elaborate; Irma and Ramon were right. So I bought a candle from them, and a few provisions, and rushed home to setup my simple altar to the dead, in my little quarto, in my host family’s house. My candle is lit and is flickering in the morning breeze…reminding me of Dad and Grandma Lena, Grandma Copp, and the Grandpas that I hardly knew. Aunt Mary and Millie and Jenny. Then there are the young men recently gone from my life, that some child or grandchild will never know: Jeff Kellogg, Jonny Copp, Brent Hurd. Here’s to all of you!
I will make a trip to the Marcado de la Cruz today for a few more offerings for my altar. Feed the dead what they love and they will come visit. I need a pepper for my Grandpa John Copp because Mom said he loved peppers of all kinds, especially stuffed ones. (But has he ever tried Habenaros?) I’ll buy garlic for Grandma and Dad, the Italian cooks, and an apple for Grandma Apalona Copp, and for Jeff Kellogg…I think of grilled cheese sandwiches when I think of Jeff and of course the violin, the Bach Double. With my cousin Jonny, the climber, I have a carabiner on the…and for my yogi friend Brent, my meditation beads.
What I love most about this holiday is that it is a mix, una mezcla of the Catholic and Indigenous that, therefore, transcends the boundaries of organized religion and becomes something spiritual and cultural and also very personal. I love too how it creates the space to invite the memories of the dead back in an open and reverent and celebratory way – and how its making me think of these people in my life, in my past, and how they are still with me in their way – in my way – and what I’ve gotten from them – life, in some cases, lessons, stories, recipes, values, inspiration.
What do I think of when I think of these people? My grandpa the coal miner, my dad the hard-driving chemist and drinker, my grandma the earnest cook and care-taker, my Aunt Millie and Aunt Mary, women who loved a fiesta, and the young men, a climber, a musician, a film-maker. I think of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, intelligence, creativity, gusto.
I'll try to reflect on these qualities today, while on my trip to the cemetery to visit strangers’ graves – and perhaps over the next week, as Peace Corps training winds down and I get ready to take my pledge. Come to think of it, these qualities could come in pretty handy in the field, in Rio Verde, where my real work as a volunteer begins.
Meanwhile, back at home in the good ole USA, it’s Election Day. While I can’t be there in person, I am there in spirit, and I pray that those elected embody the same values as my deceased loved ones – putting politics aside to help the country recover. The Mexicans are watching out too for, in the words of Professor Edgardo Lopez Manon, when the US sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia.