Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Days of the Dead

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.


Corina said...

What a wonderful way to remember your loved ones.

I knew Arturo Islas. He was my Chicano Writing teacher at Stanford during the 1970's. He was a beautiful person and a wonderful teacher.

Thank you.

Rian said...

Barbara, what a poignant post. I love that you celebrate Dia de Los Muertos. What a lovely way to pay homage to the people who have shaped your life. I'm sure your ancestors enjoyed your efforts as well as your hospitality.

Debra said...

Of course I love everything about your shrines--on many levels. Thank you for sharing this personal history with us. It's not something you do often.

Allison Ann Aller said...

This was very moving and beautiful, Barbara. How wonderful that your daughter is so fully involved, too.

Catherine Arnold said...

What a lovely way to pay tribute to those important people in your life.

Magpie Sue said...

I love the concept of Dia de los Muertos and even thought about doing something about it this year, related to my family. It didn't happen; maybe next year. Thank you for this post.

quiltmom said...

Barbara, What a great post- I have been so busy writing report cards that I haven't read many blogs lately. Today I have finished ( I need to edit but I have until Friday).
This is such a moving post - I have a set of photos that sit on a sewing machine (treadle) of my gran- I feel like its a little place of memories of her- There are the toys that I played with at her house and photos of her. There are also photos that I gave to her of myself and my family. There is a bouquet of silk flowers that were hers too. I don't find it morbid- rather that I feel her with me when I sew- She was a powerful influence in my life and miss her presence now she is gone. She feels a little less gone when I am surrounded with her things.
I love family history and your grandparents sound like very interesting people.
Thanks for sharing your personal stories.

Granny Fran said...

Barbara, I so appreciate you sharing this lovely family tradition with us. Our family has had such loses this past year and as I grow older there are more and more loses. I guess my family history research and writing fulfills this type of remembrance and comfort for me, and I'm thinking about how I could put together something like this for our family.