November 2: Día de los Muertos
It is not simply the Day of the Dead—loud, and parties.
More quietly, it is the day of my dead. The day of your dead.
These days, the neon of it all, the big-teeth, laughing skulls,
The posed calacas and Catrinas and happy dead people doing funny things—
It’s all in good humor, and sometimes I can’t help myself: I laugh out loud, too.
But I miss my father. My grandmother has been gone
Almost so long I can’t grab hold of her voice with my ears anymore,
Not easily. My mother-in-law, she’s still here, still in things packed
In boxes, her laughter on videotape, and in conversations.
Our dog died several years ago and I try to say his name
Whenever I leave the house—You take care of this house now,
I say to him, the way I always have, the way he knows.
I grew up with the trips to the cemetery and pan de muerto,
The prayers and the favorite foods, the carne asada, the beer.
But that was in the small town where my memory still lives.
Today, I’m in the big city, and that small town feels far away.
The Day of the Dead—it’s really the days of the dead. All Saints’ Day,
The first of November, also called the día de los angelitos—
Everybody thinks it’s Day of the Dead—but it’s not, not exactly.
This first day is for those who have died a saint
And for the small innocents—the criaturas—the tender creatures
Who have been taken from us all, sometimes without a name.
To die a saint deserves its day, to die a child. The following day,
The second of November, this is for everybody else who has died
And there are so many,
A grandmother, a father, a distant uncle or lost cousin.
It is hard enough to keep track even within one’s own family.
But the day belongs to everyone, so many home altars,
So many parents gone, so many husbands, so many
Aunt Normas, so many Connies and Matildes. Countless friends.
Still, by the end of the day, we all ask ourselves the same thing:
Isn’t this all over yet?
All these dead coming after—and so close to—Halloween,
The days all start to blend,
The goblins and princesses of the miniature world
Not so different from the ways in which we imagine
Those who are gone, their memories smaller, their clothes brighter.
We want to feed them only candy, too—so much candy
That our own mouths will get hypnotized by the sweetness,
Our own eyes dazzled by the color, our noses by the smells
The first cool breath of fall makes, a fire always burning
Somewhere out there. We feed our memories
And then, humans that we are, we just want to move quickly away
From it all, happy for the richness of everything
If unsettled by the cut pumpkins and gourds,
The howling decorations. The marigolds—cempasúchiles—
If it rains, they stink, these fussy flowers of the dead.
Bread of the dead, day of the dead—it’s hard to keep saying the word.
They take over the town like beach vacationers, returning tourists getting into everything:
I had my honeymoon here, they say, and are always full of contagious nostalgia.
But it’s all right. They go away, after a while.
They go, and you miss them all over again.
The papel picado, the cut blue and red and green paper decorations,
The empanadas and coconut candy, the boxes of cajeta, saladitos,
Which make your tongue white like a ghost’s—
You miss all of it soon enough,
Pictures of people smiling, news stories, all the fiestas, all this exhaustion.
The coming night, the sweet breads, the bone tiredness of too much—
Loud noise, loud colors, loud food, mariachis, even just talking.
It’s all a lot of noise, but it belongs here. The loud is to help us not think,
To make us confuse the day and our feelings with happiness.
Because, you know, if we do think about our dead,
Wherever they are, we’ll get sad, and begin to look across at each other.
Alberto Ríos, 1952–
“November 2: Día de los Muertos” from A Small Story About the Sky
© 2015 by Alberto Ríos
Photo by Luke Southern on Unsplash