The Irish say that there are times and places on our planet when the “veil” lifts or, at the very least, grows thin. The veil refers to that which separates the dead from the living. Whatever you may or may not believe, we’ve all had experiences – ghostly, otherworldly experiences – where we pause and say, “I swear I felt my mother’s hand on my shoulder”, “Why did I just think of Tio?” “I just smelled Nana’s perfume”… and suddenly, for whatever reason, we feel the presence of the Dearly Departed as if there was never any departure to speak of. But we know better. We attended the funeral, hosted the wake, spread the ashes…felt the emptiness, and/or the relief. A flood of memories, emotion, even numbness…takes us over.
Departure of friends, relatives, colleagues from the world of day to day is complicated for the living. I don’t really imagine it’s any less complicated for those that depart. Departure is complicated. Rattles the bones, so to speak. Death – at last the word – is, well, finite. And mysterious. And part of life. Now there’s a thought. Death as part of life. It’s not a new concept. Most of us have heard the phrase before, “death is a part of life.” As a child, it made me tilt my head like a dog learning a new command; as an adult, the older I grow, the more it makes sense.
I come from a traditional Mexican/Mexican-American household – traditional in a conservative-eyes-on-success-i.e.-assimilation sense, not a hold-on-to-your-indigenous-roots sense. Though let me be clear, my parents insisted I never deny any part of my genealogy – much to my grandmother Mercedes’s chagrin (another story). But my point is, the first time I witnessed a Dia de los Muertos celebration, I knew I was home, I had entered the world of my ancestors, and I felt a comfort I’d never experienced before. Everything could be expressed – laughter, sorrow, the sacred and profane. My soul sang. I have always said,
“I walk on the bones of those that came before me.” Suddenly, I discovered an historical time-honored celebration acknowledging and ceremonializing that truth.
Who knew? Well, an entire culture -cultures- actually.
The Aztecs, the Mayas, the Zapotecs… (the Celts)… There is no doubt that the veil lifts in the city of Oaxaca where the cemeteries glow with candles that light hundreds of altars decorated with flowers, food, photos, and families sing, picnic and tell stories of their dead – the good and the bad. They bring them back to life for a moment, an evening, and they are together once again, however briefly.
Back home, in my home, I build an altar and invite friends and family to join us throughout the night of Nov. 2nd. Guests add to the altar with a photograph or memento of some kind. This has been going on for over 20 years and I have accrued quite an abundance of “spirit” representations. Every year, I go through the photos. There are many I never met in life but we have become friends in death. Sometimes guests tell me a story about the person in the photo; often, I simply make their acquaintance as I survey the altar after everyone has gone.
What I know is that every year, after I set up the structure and I begin to sort through photos and place them on the altar, I feel the veil grow thin. A photo falls twice. “Ok. You don’t want to go there. How bout over here?” We begin to talk to each other. The room fills with a variety of personalities – friends, family, strangers – watchful spirits readying themselves to celebrate the living and bless us as best they can for another year.
On the night of November 2nd, after the sun sets, I smudge the house with sage inside and out as the mariachi song La Negra plays full blast and I lay a path of marigold petals from the door to the altar. The veil is lifted. All are welcome. Even the living!
Copyright 2015 by Rose Portillo. Note: To clarify: Nov.1st celebrates saints and children – the pure and innocent; Nov.2nd is about the rest of us poor sinners. Photo of 2006 Altar courtesy of Rose Portillo. All other photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc.