It’s midnight, Day of the Dead in California.
In Mexican culture we believe the afterlife portals are open, and the deceased come to visit us.
I light all my candles. Burn some copal, sacred incense, and I call upon my muertos.
My brother lies at the center of the small altar I fashioned. He died four months and eight days ago. This is his first Day of the Dead after he died and also my first outside of Mexico — at least ever since death has actually meant something.
Four months and eight days.
It seems like a lifetime. El tiempo del no tiempo. The time of no time. A blur.
I miss the streets and cemeteries full of cempasúchil, the orange marigold, the flower of the dead. Our ancestors used its oils to wash and clean corpses before burial. I miss the alleys decorated with papel picado and eating pan de muerto with coffee in the mornings, my dad’s favorite — a sweet bread made specially for the dead.
Back home, this day is about deep collective rituals. A dark and jubilant holiday.
“Feliz día de muertos,” we say. Happy Day of the Dead. We celebrate the life of those who are no longer here. But we also mourn the disappeared, the people murdered by narcos, the bodies stacked in mass graves. We wait for justice.
Nezahualcoyotl, an aztec poet born in 1418 wrote about his burning desire to approach death, a distant and mystic goddess. In his poetry, being intoxicated with terrestrial life translates into fear of death.
I am now in California. And gringos are afraid of dying.
The United States has turned this mystical day into a travesty, a culturally appropriated mockery.
Target shelves are stacked with orange and purple plastic craniums. Catrinas, the elegant and feminine skulls with hats, originally intended as a deadly criticism of the elite, are now yellow napkins with green feathers. Somehow Frida Kahlo made it into the mix. Chocolates. Lollipops. Gummies. Everything revolves around consumption.
When I was a kid, we ate colorful sugar skulls that would have our names on them –a fun and eerie reminder that the muerte burlona, the mysterious and teasing death, will one day come and get us.
“Death is democratic, since after all, güera, (blonde) brunette, rich or poor, all people end up being skulls,” wrote José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator who died in 1913.
We are all going to die, and the Day of the Dead is meant to remember that.
But here in the United States, people eat skull-shaped Reese’s Pieces and corn syrup candy while wearing hot dog costumes. Capitalism denies the beauty and release of the unknown.
Americans fear of dying is shown through their intense need to show how much they are living. To show this through consuming experiences — of other cultures, other ideas, other ways of being. Rather than settling into the fragility of their own.
But to me, death is seductive. Staring at my brother’s altar, I sometimes wish I was dead.
In the absence of marigolds, I use the three dried rose petals that I brought back from the crematory garden where my brother’s yellow and frozen corpse was turned into ashes.
I washed his body with sage, honoring my traditions. We held hands and wished him a good journey in his last stage of transformation. My family watched as his body entered the oven. I sang to him during the entire process, invoking the power of my ancestors to protect my little brother in his passage to the afterlife.
I will always remember the stench of burnt flesh.
As the scent of copal fills the room, I am dizzy. I close my eyes and pour two glasses of red wine: one for me and one for my brother.
Next to the rose petals on the altar, his sunglasses and card deck remind me of his joie de vivre.
“Salud,” I say. And we drink together. I see a feather at the very bottom of the altar. I ask him, “Do you remember it?”. I picked it up from outside the hospital the day you left this world. You lied there inert, artificially breathing, almost brain-dead. You hit your head too hard.
“Eso no es vida,” repeated my sister over and over in the hospital. That’s no life. Life is more than breathing. Life is love, expansion, emotion, freedom, creativity. Life is contradiction, confusion and pain.
But you couldn’t feel any of that. Your brain was full of blood.
Feliz día de muertos, little brother. I take another sip of wine.
Your presence is so obvious that I am scared. Te siento tan presente entre las velas y las olas de copal, que me da miedo. How can you be “here” if you are “not here”?
Gracias por venir a visitarme. Thanks for visiting. You reply that you have always been here, because eternity is now. We smile and toast again. I haven’t seen you in so long. I miss you. Listening to your voice is truly soothing, a healing balm that calms my pain.
Back home, mom has set up an altar, surrounded by our grandparents and Roco, our childhood three-legged dog we had to put down. The one you loved so much. She collected all of your quirky objects, symbols of your exotic personality and brilliant brain: the Maratón game, your Cuban cigars, vintage binoculars for the opera, the copper martini shaker and your weird books about genetics that we didn’t understand.
Over here it’s midnight, Day of the Dead in California.
The afterlife portals are open, and my brother came to visit me.
I saw him full of life and love. He is free and creative, singing “O mio babbino caro” by Puccini while he chills and parties with our ancestors. What a life. I’m jealous. That sounds way better that this fucking corn-syrup universe. Maybe death is now.
I stare into the abyss. Finish my wine and leave out your glass for the night, in case you still want it. As I blow the candles out, I embrace death with all my being. You are eternal, and eternity is now. I cry my eyes out, choking with emotion in between. Grieving is healing. Dying is living.
Te adoro. Gracias por tu visita. I love you. Thank you for visiting me.