Is it Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos?


A few days ago, as I do every year, I went into the attic and dug out a banker's box sized container of Día de los Muertos paraphernalia. The sugar skulls, the this, the that. The last few years the ritual has felt old and dusty, like the stuff in the bag. I put out the pictures, buy the marigolds, lay out some trinkets without a connection to the stuff. It's embarrassing because I've seen how deeply significant and personal an altar can be in the hands of people like L.A's Ofelia Esparza.

The Day of the Dead altar isn't a knee jerk thing for me. My mother was religious but she didn't create an altar in our house in Tijuana or San Diego. Dia de los Muertos was something you celebrated in the cemetery back in the old country. California Chicanos in the 1970s infused the traditions they saw in Mexico with a carnival-like atmosphere in arts centers and homes.

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My mother lives -- it feels like -- a world away in San Diego. I haven't visited my Mexican aunts in Tijuana in years, I haven't seen the Tijuana cousins my age in years either. I haven't been to Mexico City in nearly three years. I go through periods when I don't feel Mexican anymore.

Not this year. I climbed up the wood, folding ladder with a few lines I'd read the week before in a poem by Octavio Paz. From "Elegía interrumpida" ("Interrupted elegy").


Hoy recuerdo a los muertos de mi casa.
Al primer muerto nunca lo olvdidamos,
aunque muera de rayo, tan aprisa
que no alcance la cama ni los oleos.

Now I remember the dead of my own house.
We never forget the first among us dead,
though he was the one struck down, he died so fast
that nothing was there, no bed, no holy oils.
(New Directions, translation 1973)

The ancestors don't come out on November 2. They live in your house. They're with you if you want them there. I often explain away what feels like a tug at my shoulder as a brief muscular twitch or a surface skin spasm. Even though I see no one there, part of me wants to know that my grandfather, killed in his 20s in Guanajuato, or my other grandparents, may be touching my shoulder to let me know they're there. It's a good presence.

I haven't lived in a house where a family member has died. My mother did. In her hometown in Guanajuato wakes take place in living rooms.

Paz is writing about living in a house with the presence of his muertos, his family members who've died. That's the company I want to keep. My family's dead, Miguel, Lucha, Maria, Galo, Elias, Alicia, Pancho, Rupe, Gil, and lots others are a good bunch. I'll do my best to think about them and the love and pain they felt in life.

That's not what Halloween is about. I get the feeling that Dia de los Muertos as we're celebrating it now in Southern California is a bit like how All Hallows' Eve must have been celebrated 100 years ago, before the onslaught of Halloween commercialization. Enjoy.

Poet and KPCC Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

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