During this Hallowed Season, Rebecca Zendejas invites us to appreciate the lives that we have, by acknowledging the deaths we’ve experienced.
“You have within you, your ancestors.”
Everyone thought I was asleep. We were in my abuelita’s room and like a baby bird I felt safe and warm; nestled against Lita who was sitting up in her bed. A family of pranksters, someone had the idea to take some photos. My Tía and Tío got under the covers; Lita now pretending to be asleep. Then it was my father’s turn to get into the picture. And finally Drowsy Doll was tucked in, waving “Buenos Días” to the camera. My mother was the photographer. And in each photo I appear to be sound asleep. But I wasn’t.
Surrounded by the laughter and chatter of those I loved, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Later that morning I would eat baby pancakes and drink milk from a small, ceramic-coated metal cup. My Abuelita lived in a studio on the roof of a two story building that gave me a bird’s eye view of the city and the ability to reach for the leaves of a peppercorn tree.
Two years later we received a phone call before dawn. Lita had passed away unexpectedly. My father quickly packed a suitcase, preparing to drive from the SF Bay Area to Mexico City. As he left, I asked him to bring back Drowsy Doll. She had been left with Lita as a gift. If I couldn’t go with him and see Lita, I wanted to at least have Drowsy with me again. When my father returned without her, I was told that she had stayed with my cousin. It would take a few years before I understood that she wasn’t coming home. My parents did their best to resume life as usual; unaware of the deaths that would soon follow.
In my parent’s room there was a drawer where photos and family mementos were kept. Since it was uncommon for adults to speak about death and grief with children, I opened that drawer often and looked at photos; revisiting the few memories that I had of people that I missed and could no longer visit. As I grew older, I spent less time with the drawer, but the memories traveled with me.
“I know that the ones who love us, will miss us”
During one of my first courses at UCSB, I learned of the Tana Toraja of Indonesia, where no one is ever truly separate from the deceased. For the rest of their lives, the mourners perform elaborate ceremonies to remember their loved ones and include them in the community. Completely different from my experience with death, fascination would lead me to take courses in anthropology, religious studies and art history; learning about the death rituals and celebrations of Asia, Africa, pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, Australia and Polynesia. It would be several years before I would recognize and acknowledge that I had suppressed my own grief; and to realize that the traditions of my own heritage, a blend of Mexican and Western European cultures, could help me process it.
While visiting Mexico City with my father, I asked him to show me the building I knew as my abuelita’s home. We were both surprised that a third floor had been added, with elaborate toy store window displays. The peppercorn trees were long gone. Later that day, I saw my first sugar skull in an open air market. It was late November and the colorful confection seemed out of place among the decorations for December celebrations. My father explained that people bought them as gifts for loved ones during Días de los Muertos.
I had heard of the holiday but in the days before the internet, I knew very little about it. It hadn’t been spoken about when I was a child. The subject of death reminded me of my abuelita’s grave and I asked him to take me to it. It wasn’t the first time I had asked him to do this, but it was the first time that he had agreed.
We wandered through the cemetery until we found an unmarked grave covered with grass. He was unsure that it was the exact location, and shared that he had only returned once in the twenty one years since her death. As far as he knew, her remains had been removed years ago, to make room for others. This was a common practice for untended graves. Deeply moved by the experience, I made a quiet promise to return; to find the exact location of her grave and confirm if she had been removed. Until then, I made a commitment to learn about Días de los Muertos.
“¿Cómo te voy a olvidar?”
Four years later, I did return, asking the cemetery office clerk for help. To find her location in a handwritten ledger, I needed the exact date of her death. Neither my father nor other family members could remember the day or the month. So, on Días de los Muertos I purchased a candle, a sugar skull and some marigolds, and returned to a location that seemed like the spot my father had shown me years earlier.
With a pair of scissors I began to trim the overgrown grass. Seeing me struggle, a young man offered to remove large clumps with a shovel and soon the gravestone of a gentleman buried in 1945 was revealed. It was not my abuelita’s grave. After thanking and paying the young man, I kneeled and introduced myself to Señor Vasquez and asked his permission to decorate his grave. Heart broken, I also asked him to relay a message to my abuelita, that I was trying to find her.
It seemed that I had reached the end of my quest. Then weeks later, I asked my Tía, “Had my cousin been born yet, when my abuelita had died?”. Yes. “How old was he?” And I’ll never forget the look on her face when she remembered the date of Lita’s death. By the end of the week, I was led to the location of my abuelita’s grave. I had finally found it…There’s no photo of her gravesite. I didn’t want to remember it, although I’ll never forget it.
Squeezed between two other graves, and covered in discarded lumps of cement from the tile work of her neighbor’s markers, I wondered if she was even there. All I could do was cry and apologize for taking so long to find her. I looked up and saw one of the groundskeepers approaching me. A kind man, he asked if I needed help. After telling him my story, he explained that he had worked for the cemetery since the 1960s, and was certain that her remains were still there. She had not been removed. Although still heartbroken by the circumstances, I experienced a profound sense of relief. As I left the cemetery, I made another silent promise to return someday and at least remove the lumps of cement on top of her grave.
“The idea that time heals all wounds is not really true.
Our wounds aren’t ever really healed, we just learn to walk with them.”
For the next twenty four years, I created an ofrenda each November; not only remembering my abuelita and family members from Mexico, but also my matrilineal loved ones, dear friends and teachers. And as the years passed and more photos were added, what had begun as a solemn memorial became a festive celebration.
Once I was asked, “Do you believe your loved ones actually return to the Ofrenda?” Whether they actually do or not feels irrelevant. The act of celebrating them on the altar returns them to me in a loving, colorful, playful way. My grief is no longer hidden in a drawer. Like the Tana Toraga, I welcome it, as it is…sometimes with sorrow, sometimes with joy; always with appreciation and love. My experience of grief today is quite different than it was when I was five. But at every age, it has been an expression of my connection to those that I love and that have loved me.
“You can’t always get what you want…”
As May of 2022 approached, it was clear that I could not be at Lita’s grave for the 50th anniversary of her death. It had been more difficult to return to Mexico City than I had anticipated. After decades of honoring her memory in various ways, I knew in my heart that I had never actually left her. Even so, it was a disappointment. The promise that I had made to return, delayed another year. I did my best to resume my life as usual.
Recently, dear friends were excited to tell me that they were traveling to Mexico City. They would be there for Días de los Muertos. They asked, “Why don’t you come with us?” I was confused by the question, wondering if I had heard them correctly. A few days later we met in a cafe, looking at maps and websites as I offered suggestions; unable to contain my enthusiasm for their trip, nor my longing to be there myself.
“Why don’t you come with us?” This time I knew I had heard them correctly. I was awake. It wasn’t a dream. Was it really possible? It was. It is. Soon I’ll be flying above peppercorn trees...returning to keep a promise and to celebrate.
In Remembrance There is Life