The Day of the Dead
for Carl Edward Granzow and Juan Flores, i.m.
I could easily say that the Day of the Dead is my favorite holiday since I was a child. But that would be untrue, and would leave out one of the main reasons that I like it so much. See, I grew up believing that we do not have an immortal soul, that when we die, our bodies just melt back into the earth and eventually disappear, not a shadow of a memory left behind.
Oddly enough, that belief stemmed from a strict and dogmatic religious upbringing, my mother and most of her family are part of a large and growing religion whose adepts believe the earth will be destroyed, along with all the "worldly" people that refuse to join them. They also believe that good people (i.e. their good people) that die before the day of the Lord will resurrect to a perfect land where the lion will no longer be a carnivore, nobody ever again will have unmarried sex and some other cute and whacky physics-laws-defying characteristics.
For my mom and her friends, the worst punishment is not the possibility of everlasting fire, or demons stabbing you with pitchforks and eating your entrails; the worse thing that could happen to you is to be erased from the Book of Life, which basically means, you die, and God forgets you ever existed.
When I was a kid I used to laugh at kids at school who believed in hell and heaven, in burning forever and ever just because you lied to the teacher or ate meat last friday, and sneered when someone said they had left flowers on somebody else's tombstone. That was until I fully grasped the horror of my own beliefs. To disappear, to be gone, to melt away, not for a while, not for a millennium or until hell froze. For-fucking-ever. You die and you cease existing. What loving god would do that to his creatures? Why opening a small window of life and beauty just to close it a few decades later?
I have come to believe that was the moment I seriously started questioning the whole idea of god and religion. But that's a completely different story.
The thing is, after my religious crisis, which left me in a better place, since I still believe we do not have an immortal soul, but I no longer think of it as the result of a seriously deranged and vicious creator, I finally started understanding the soothing qualities of ritualistic acts in regards to the dead people.
When my grandfather -father of my father- died, a few years ago, I accompanied my family in the wake, and later the cemetery. For a few hours, we all were joined, together, in a suspended moment of deep remembrance. What were we remembering, I cannot tell you. Each one of us, I'm sure of it, had a moment in mind, one single moment playing and replaying in our minds, a loop of a happy memory. My grandfather meant different things for each one of us, he had been a good and a bad man, a troublemaker and a happy miner, a womanizer and a drunk. But most importantly, he was my grandpa, Don Juan, Juanito, papá, abuelo, papá Juan, Juan Flores... The stories I heard that day and that night came all from from people who had known him way better than me, always the black sheep, but they all formed a mosaic that was, that IS, my grandpa.
I know he is dead, he can't see me or hear me when I talk to his picture. He does not come to join us every November 1st. He can no longer taste the white tequila we lovingly pour for him, or inhale the smell of the tobacco. He can no longer taste the wonderful mole my aunts prepare. Most importantly, he will never again dance in the middle of the street, drunk and feisty, daring the drivers to get off the car and fight him for the right to pass in front of his house.
Never again he will pour me half a shot of tequila to cure a cold, and sneer at people who criticized him for giving tequila to a 5 year old.
And yet, every time I think of him, a smile comes to my face. Every time somebody calls me stubborn, crazy, party animal, or hyper-sexual, I know his blood runs through my veins, and I thank him for it.
According to pre-hispanic mexican traditions, the souls of the departed come every year to settle scores and party with the family. Families all over the country spend days working in the altars, and preparing food. Then, the night of Nov. 1st, they all go to the cemetery, lay a nice flower tablecloth on top of the grave, and eat, sing, and drink.
How many really believe the deceased joins them in that moment? Maybe a lot, but looking at all those people, reunited around rotting corpses, I cannot but think that maybe, just maybe, the celebration of the day of the dead is actually a celebration of life, of what the ones that are gone has left us. Of what of them is still alive within us.
And so, this weekend I will drink and eat and sing, and will toast to my grandpa's soul. The one he left in my heart.