What Celebrating My First Dia de Muertos Looks Like After Losing My Grandma and Great Aunt
My understanding of grief within our community has shifted dramatically over the past couple of years. While it used to be something I thought I could help combat, I learned through experience that it was also something I had to hold with care.
I didn’t grow up celebrating Dia de Muertos. I also didn’t grow up being taught the nourishing value of community. I was raised by a single mother and an older sister who would keep me entertained with short but loving conversations. It was not until I turned 23 years old and entered a new phase of life that I realized how much tradition I was not able to benefit from as a young Latina growing up in Los Angeles.
Since graduating college and moving back home, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who built me up. I spent so many years not being able to see my family for what it was. Being raised in America, I only ever consumed portraits of the nuclear family. This made me feel incomplete however much I tried to pay it no mind. With enough time to reflect, I can now view celebrations like Dia de Muertos as revolutionary practices to let in everyone who played a role in my upbringing.
After years of repression, it’s a blessing to finally recognize my ancestors working through me in such intimate ways. I didn’t ever see myself getting to this place of sincerity, as I didn’t know such a place could exist for me. I couldn’t provide a roadmap as to how I got here either, because half of it still feels like a mystery to me and the other half still comes with a lot of effort.
At 19 years old, plagued with a melancholy I knew not what to do with, I moved to New York to join some scrappy young adults working to make Hillary Clinton our next president. I decided then, with all the might I could muster, that the pursuit of a more just America could be the thing to quell my unresolved multi-generational angst. And while since then, politics has become an important vehicle for me to express my heartache, it’s nowhere close to the work I’ve had to do personally to pull myself out of my mental gutter time and time again.
In 2021 through my employment at Ethel’s Club and Somewhere Good and in the midst of a global pandemic, I began learning about the genuine quality of work that goes behind intentional community building. What was required of me was not something I could yet provide long-term. I had to not only know how to celebrate myself in all my complexities but also believe in myself as someone who could contribute to such a joyful mission. To do this, I had to learn to define myself within the context of my past, something I was not ashamed of but didn’t necessarily have the composure to do yet.
There were so many discomforts I had to suppress to even make it through college as a first-generation student. In other words, my mid-twenties have been full of growing pains. They’ve also been very instructive in deciding the values I reach for now as I approach my late twenties.
Today I stand with the wisdom that preserving all the best parts of my community is what I care to devote the rest of my life to doing. The point isn’t for me to linger on what could have been. I see no point in wondering what a more intact childhood would have looked like. I look for openings to allow me the breathing room I couldn’t afford as a kid.
I’ll be celebrating the holiday on my own this year, far from lingering eyes and well-intentioned aunts. It may become a tradition for me to do it this way or as the years pass, I may invite a cousin or two to join me. Regardless, there is no pressure to perform pain, joy, or any other emotion, and that is what I believe the holiday is about.
On my altar will be my great aunt and the most selfless woman I have loved, Tia Lupa. She’s the kind of woman who, for me, always existed outside of time. I feel her with me everywhere I go. Beside her will be my grandmother, Mamamela. Mamamela was our matriarch and while I gravitated towards the softness of Tia Lupa more, there is something to be said about Mamamela’s strength and how that kept my mother surviving long enough to have me.
Then there is Paty, my godmother. I was always a little afraid of her untethered nature. She was striking and bright. Once while in a dry period of my life, I had a vivid dream about her. In the dream, we circled a bookshelf which I used to hide behind to avoid her inspection. It was a moment of embarrassment for me and when I awoke, I knew the message was for me to allow more joy, more spontaneity, and less structure. Beside Paty is Ruben. Ruben was one of the hundreds of Angelinos who were homeless and passed away on the streets. He is far from a statistic in my father’s eyes, though. Ruben, as my dad recalls, was the one out of fifteen of his siblings who knew how to make anyone feel special. While my own father largely lacks this graceful quality, there are moments now and then when I see Ruben shine through him.
The beauty of Dia de Muertos is that there are no rules to who I can and can’t honor. It also comes with no expectation as to how I should go about remembering those who’ve moved onto another plane of existence. I can cry, I can laugh, I can call my dad and ask him to tell me another story about my uncle who, while never speaking a word to me, still left an indelible mark.
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