I was always under the impression that Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, was a Mexican Halloween. That was until I moved to the Frontera de Mexico, the border town of El Paso, Texas, Ciudad Juárez being right across the Rio Grande River.
River isn’t an accurate description. It was mostly waist-high water, slick with oil and roiling with trash and human waste. In other places, it was gross puddles of muck that stuck to people’s legs as they crossed into the United States illegally.
My clients, my midwifery clients, would wade through the Rio Grande to come to their prenatal appointments, or to us at the birth center in the throes of labor. We would shower and scrub them of the horrific leavings before putting them in their clean private room to have their American babies.
It was during long autumn labors that I learned what the real meaning of Día de los Muertos was. It has nothing to do with fear, scariness or the ravages of death. Instead, the holiday is a beautiful time of remembrance of the loved ones in their family that have since passed on. I learned about the ofrenda, the altar of marigolds and candles, holding the photos of the family tree, always standing guard over the spiritual health of the house’s inhabitants.
My Spanish was still fairly new and primarily obstetric in nature, so the other, more fluent midwives, would translate the newer words for me. At that time, 99% of my days were in Spanish, it pervading even my dreams and sleep-talking. I love Spanish. I am thankful to be fluent finally. Except with engineering Spanish, that would be a challenge still.
Anyway, Día de los Muertos.
As an atheist, I gave up the idea of a heaven and hell long ago, but an Afterlife? Now that is something different entirely.
I believed (still believe) that, after someone is gone, if they are remembered by anyone alive, they are in “The Afterlife.” It was challenging to articulate that for a very long time, but when Día de los Muertos came into my life, it became clear that I had not invented such a belief, but an entire culture had done the thought a million times better!
And even though I am a Cuban American, not a cell of Mexican blood in me, I embrace the Day of the Dead holiday… belief… for my own. I have been told it is Cultural Appropriation, that I need to find the Cuban or Swedish holidays of my own DNA… but I sat at the feet of abuelas, the oldest women of the families, as they told me about their own families, the ofrendas of remembrance and I have been doused with Mexican blood, lots and lots of it, doesn’t that count for some alternative christening into the Mexican world?
It’s my own head game I know. I know darn well it is Cultural Appropriation, but this is one I am clinging to.
Here’s to everyone’s beautiful afterlife. ¡A linda vida futura!