Luto. Photo by Sebástian Freire.

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The Every Day (of the Day of the Dead)

“Many among us now are crazy for meanings, and crazed by seeking them out. The meanings of life aren’t inherited. What is inherited is the mandate to make meanings of life by how we live. The endings of life give life’s meanings a chance to show. The beginning of the end of our order, our way, is now in view. This isn’t punishment, any more than dying is a punishment for being born.”

-Stephen Jenkins, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul


I grew up in a small, predominantly Mexican American town in South Texas where death was a social event. I say social event because the town was small enough that whenever someone died they were typically either a relative, a friend, or a friend of a relative. And because there was nothing else to do in that tiny town, funerals—and all the activities associated with them–—were gatherings that everyone attended. Or so it seemed.

Children were part of the culture of observing the dead. Sometimes, they too were among the dead, like when my three-year-old sister fell from a two-story window. She had been sitting on the windowsill pretending to sip tea, only to lean too far into the unlatched screen, causing her to stumble to her death as my older sister, only four, watched her fall. Sadly, nothing was kept from us, as far as loss was concerned; sometimes, it happened right in front of our eyes.

One such loss comes to pass at midnight on August 3, 1970, when the water tower siren starts to blare like an air raid warning, waking our sleepy town up to the disaster about to occur. Hurricane Celia has just touched ground, and our house will soon be under eight feet of water. I am twelve years old, and my mother is screaming from the other side of the house to grab our things and leave. Our neighbor’s pigs have broken out of their pens and are squealing loudly in a panic outside our front door, as they try to run faster than the menacing wave of water chasing rapidly behind them. My family is lucky and is able to get in our car and drive off to safety at the designated shelter, which is the county courthouse. Because the building is so crowded and we are allowed to rest anywhere we can find an empty spot, I end up spending the night on a jury chair.

It’s going to be a couple of days before it is safe to venture out of the courthouse. When the day finally arrives, my mother and I try to get as close as possible to our house, but the safest distance is a block and a half away. From there all we can see downhill is the roof of our house; the rest is still underwater. Sadly, we have just heard that my uncle, who stayed behind to help others evacuate, was overtaken by a current of water and drowned near the house, pinned against the chain-link fence. Yet again, it became clear to me that Death apparently has no propriety and comes in many unexpected ways.

My family are descendants of land-grant Spanish settlers—we have our own cemetery on ranch land a few miles outside of town, where there are gravestones or markers that date back to 1750. Traditions like Day of the Dead were nonexistent in our town; they were exotic, indigenous rituals practiced across the border. The closest we came to it was “All Souls’ Day” at church and the “practice” my grandparents called “luto.” As a child I knew someone was in “luto” because they were the only ones wearing black from head to toe—for days, months, or years after the funeral. Black was not elegant or cool in those days. If you saw someone wearing it, you knew to ask, “Who died?” We understood that the person wearing black was not going to be themselves, we knew to let them be out of character and to cry out loud, not just at the funeral, but at any time and any place. We knew, when we saw the grieving uniform, to let them be and give them space. It was understood that we were not to distract the mourner or fill their time with chatter about happy subjects or inconsequential topics like the weather. We also were encouraged, if they did speak to us first, to invite or allow them to talk about their deceased loved one because that was the only thing comforting to them.

When the creek finally returned to its banks that August after Hurricane Celia passed—perhaps a week later—I was the first one to approach the front door, slipping and sliding on the one-inch carpet of mud that covered the porch. When I pushed the front door open, I was greeted by the refrigerator, which the water had carried into the living room from two rooms away. My attention went right to my feet, where I noticed a snake slithering past me, perhaps in great relief that it could finally leave our house where it had been trapped all week. It left behind an unforgettable “S” engraved on the sludge as it slithered away, past my shoe, and brought my attention to the shiny, although muddy, diamond engagement ring mysteriously embedded in the dark, dirty clay. Where had this ring come from? I wondered. Was it a neighbor’s or had it come to me from as far away as the valley near the Gulf of Mexico? Whose moonlight kiss or tender “I do” had this ring been a testament to before floating its way to me?

I relive this same sense of awe and terror whenever I lose a friend, a relative, or a friend of a relative to this day, or I become aware of a thunderstorm threatening, or, oddly, I fall unexpectedly in love. Alarmed, I inevitably wake from a deep sleep in a panic, the impulse arising in me to grab the black clothes I have stashed nearby as I run for safety. Without meaning to, I end up on that same jury chair deliberating the question—will I love or will I fear? For death (or the day of the dead)—if encountered—is a life changer, either way.

I am grateful and observant of the tradition of “luto” impressed on me as a child. Mark Twain said it best when he wrote: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” If I am less than prepared, it is at least obvious to me that the “Day of the Dead” is every day, at any moment, and potentially at any place. I have learned that, in truth, on any given day there are many “dyings.” So will it really matter which of those “dyings”—in the long run—is the actual one?