For years we have put up a Day of the Dead altar at my house. Remembering is a critical act for individuals and communities, and so for a few days a year we construct this monument to our past.
The Days of the Dead in Mexico were celebrated by indigenous people before the Spanish conquest. They dedicated a whole month to the event and believed that the division between the living and the dead was especially porous during this time. These beliefs and practices were merged with the Christian observation of All Soul's Day. In the present day, people construct offerings for the dead in their homes and in cemeteries in a profound celebration of nostalgia.
Allie put up this year's altar: she's a very nostalgic person and she's taking a Sociology course on death and dying, so the dead are very much on her mind these days. Over the years she and I have made spirit houses to commemorate very important people to us.
I made this spirit house for my maternal grandmother María. She was born in Mexico and had a very hard life, most of which was lived in extreme poverty. She never learned to read or write, but she had a dry wit, and would make jokes and play with words in ironic ways. Some of her jokes I would only "get" much later. In Spanish the word for leftovers is "sobras" and the word for nieces is "sobrinas." My grandmother always called leftovers "sobrinas," as in "let's have some nieces for lunch." For years I thought that "sobrinas" was the real word for leftovers.
I put clothes pins and twine in her spirit house because she seemed to be always doing laundry, and she always had perfectly starched tablecloths and curtains in her kitchen. She was religious and prayed the rosary daily, often with the telenovelas playing quietly on the TV.
The photo on top is one of me with my grandmother, and the one on the bottom is a photo of her and Allie. I put beans and cinnamon sticks on the bottom, because these were the smells of her house. My grandmother unfortunately died within three months of Allie's birth.
Her husband, my grandfather Luis, who was born in Urápan, Michoacán, Mexico in 1886, is on the other end of the altar. He died when my mother was 12, so I never knew him. He was apparently kind of a dandy. He had beautiful handwriting, and he liked to have his photo taken. He was a laborer and a musician, who my mother says played all string instruments until he lost a finger in a bar fight, and he loved the opera.
My cousin Madi died last year very suddenly. She was a teacher and community activist who was loved by her children and grandchildren. She was very interested in our family history.
Allie wants to make a spirit house for her dad's mother, who's in the unframed snapshot. Cecilia was a loving, smart, self-made business woman. who died too young from cancer. She had 8 children, and was the heart and soul of her family. Her mother, Micaela, to whom she was devoted, is in the framed photo in the back. This spirit house is for Arturo Islas, a teacher, and friend who I studied with in graduate school. Arturo died in the 1990s from complications of HIV/AIDS. He struggled for years to publish the novels that established him as an important writer: The Rain God, Migrant Souls, and La Becky and the King of Tears. He was also an accomplished poet.
At the top of his spirit house is a caption: "El pueblo que pierde su memoria pierde su destino," A people that loses its memory loses its destiny. This sentiment reminds me that nostalgia and memory are purposeful, that they help us to remember who we are in the present, and shape who we will be in the future.