The week before November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, I returned to Mexico City to celebrate the life and acknowledge the death of my grandmother...
“Tu tenías mucha razón, le hago caso al corazón y me muero por volver.”
“You were very right. I listen to my heart and I'm dying to go back.”
The week before November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, I returned to Mexico City to celebrate the life and acknowledge the death of my grandmother. A lot had changed in the twenty five years since my last visit. At that time, the celebrations were held in cemeteries, privately in homes; and in a few public places, like the Frida Kahlo museum. If you weren’t actively seeking the decorations in the neighborhood markets, you could easily miss them, and be completely unaware that the holiday was even happening.
Since 2016, the city has been celebrating Día de Muertos as a community event. For about a week, the streets are decorated with marigolds, papel picado, alebrijes, catrinas; ofrendas on display in historic buildings, shop windows, pharmacies, parks, car dealerships…
This year the Zocalo, the main public square, was filled with thirty-two ofrendas: one representing Mexico City and one for each state of Mexico. Catrinas stood tall and proudly in their regional garments. Busy avenues were elaborately decorated and closed for festive parades. Filled with cultural pride, people of all ages celebrated in the streets with painted faces and imaginative costumes.
So much had changed that I didn’t recognize the main entrance to the cemetery. This wasn’t only because of the elaborate Día de Muerto decorations that covered it; the building I had entered decades earlier was gone; a new one now under construction. Fortunately, a temporary office was still open and with my aunt by my side, I was able to confirm that I had the correct burial plot number.
As we approached the plot, it was a relief to see that the lumps of cement that covered her grave in 1997 were gone; and there was a lot more space than I had remembered. It was a little confusing. Then the groundskeeper pointed to the numbers on the cross, to the left of the grassy mound where we stood. They matched the numbers that I had shown him; the numbers of my grandmother’s gravesite. Perhaps my father had been correct. Perhaps she had been removed to make space for someone else. I wondered if I had been taken to the wrong location twenty five years earlier. The weathered headstone was difficult to read and I couldn’t determine if it had been placed in the years after my grandmother’s burial. I decided that the grassy mound was close enough. It was exactly what I was hoping to find; access to soil and the ability to plant marigold seeds in the earth above my grandmother’s grave. Or at least, under these new circumstances, next to it.
On Dia de Muertos, I returned with my dear travel companions, Simon and Karenina, and purchased flowers outside the cemetery. As we walked to the grave, I realized that I had forgotten to bring a sugar skull, some copal, chocolate and at least one candle. Deeply embarrassed, I shared my disappointment of being so unprepared, as we walked by a courtesy booth decorated with unlit candles. Simon suggested that we ask the people at the booth if I could buy one of their candles. They happily gave me two, adding an amaranth sugar skull. And since we didn't have matches or a lighter, they also lit the candles for us. Karenina shielded the flames from a light breeze with her parasol, as we walked further into the cemetery.
At the gravesite, we began removing the clumps of grass. Mosquitos welcomed us and I couldn’t help but consider how small my ‘blood sacrifice’ was, compared to my family members and ancestors. Before planting the seeds of marigolds that had decorated my ofrendas in recent years, I took a moment to acknowledge the kindness, generosity and love that had made the moment possible. After watering the seeds, we added flower petals, flowers, the candles and the amaranth skull as dusk settled over the cemetery.
As I gently placed my hands on the ‘cresta de gallo’ flowers, I imagined my grandmother's heart at peace, joyful and free. We sat in silence for a while, each of us took a bite of the amaranth skull, then chatted quietly until it was time to leave.
The following day I received a message from the airline that my departure from Mexico City had been canceled. The next flight available gave me one more day in the city. So, as the Uber drove my friends towards the airport, I walked towards the neighborhood hardware store and purchased a trowel. Karenina had bought some potted marigolds to decorate our AirBnB and I decided to return to the cemetery and plant them at my grandmother’s grave.
The amaranth sugar skull that we had left two days earlier was gone when I arrived that morning. I was glad that I had purchased two chocolate skulls from a street vendor on my walk to the metro station. One was for my abuelita, and one was for me. In the sunshine, while bees buzzed and birds chirped, I ate my chocolate. Her death was the first of many that would break my heart. My suffering had only been alleviated when I stopped trying to ignore it, numb it or fix it. Giving it space to exist, as it is, with kindness and care, allowed it to transform into beauty and compassion for others. My grief created a deep and lasting connection to more than my own family and heritage. And I no longer feel alone in my suffering.
Like the city I love so well, I had also changed a lot. And yet, I was still my abuelita’s nena chula and having a difficult time knowing when to leave the cemetery. If she had lingered all of these years out of concern or fear for my well being, I wanted her to know that I am well. And if she was watching over me, I wanted her to know that I appreciated it. There would always be a place for her in my heart. And my heart wished for her to be free.
As I stood up to leave, I whispered "May you be free of suffering", and a monarch butterfly flew over my head and into the sky. May we all be free of suffering…
“Somehow I found myself healed, not of grief, but of the immeasurable loneliness that attends grief…”
Rebecca Zendejas has had a lifelong fascination with places of worship and the creation of sacred space within daily routines. Inspired by the celebrations of Samhain and Dias de los Muertos she created the Community Memorial Altar at Paradise Found last year; anyone and everyone were invited to write the name of a loved one and add it to the altar. As an artist and woodworker, Rebecca designs and creates one of a kind personal altars for the home and office. She can be found on Instagram @zendohous or contacted by email: email@example.com.