On Día de los Muertos, we respect and honor the dead. But it’s a hard day for me to celebrate in the Bay Area, when the dead and soon to be dead walk around me. When I see ofrendas for Alex Nieto, he reminds me of my uncle, with his 49ers jersey and his belief: I grew up here, I belong here, no one can take that away from me. Or, when I see that after 46 years, Galería De La Raza will be evicted as if anyone has the right to evict culture, evict spirit, evict the people who built La Mission. Still, now when I see parts of my life, culture, and home taken from me and the community I grew up in I often find myself wondering what is there to celebrate. Is Día de los Muertos for the living, or a prayer to take us away from the land of the walking dead?
These days, I try to let go of what Día de los Muertos has come to mean in the United States. Instead, I hold onto what it means in Mexico. It’s a rebirth, and a day to remember those who we will always carry with us.
The week my abuela was taken away from us, she visited us twice.
My tía and I were two ghosts watching Pedro Almodovar’s film, “Habla Con Ella,” (Talk to Her) in my tia’s bed. We were wrapped like two swaddled babies in perfectly crisp linen sheets, neatly stacked upon each other like layers of a pastel de tres leches, and topped with an intricate, multi colored quilt. It smelled just like my abuela’s bed; of detergent, talcum powder, and lily of the valley. A perfume you could never bottle.
In the film we were watching two lovers realize it’s the end of their relationship. But, before they breakup beneath a veranda under the Spanish sky, the Brazilian singer and guitarist Caetano Veloso serenades them:
Dicen que por las noches
No mas se le iba en puro llorar
Dicen que no comía…
My aunt began mouthing the words, “No mas se le iba en puro tomar.” And as I looked at her, I could see her as a little girl, singing the words of a song her mother taught her. “This was your abuela’s favorite song,” she told me.
When I get visions of my grandmother, she comes to me like a white dove. When you see a white dove — it’s as if it clears the sky. As if its wings are backlit by a cloudless cielo. Turtle doves are often associated with romance. For me, I think of magic and my abuela. I think of her green thumb, and the jasmine blossoms, and the lemon tree that sprung from it. That lemon tree gave us fruit all year round. These are the things I dreamed of when Paloma Blanca, or white dove, first visited my family.
Later, I sat with my mama and tía at La Taqueria, one of my abuela’s favorite spots in the Mission. As we ate our tacos, yet another one of my abuela’s favorite songs came on the jukebox. My mama and tia burst into tears and ran out of the taqueria, tacos uneaten. I followed them out onto that Mission street that felt like a skeleton of what it was in my youth.
Instead of paleterias, we got tasting menus. Instead of affordable housing, we got luxury condos. Instead of life, we got death.
“Cucurrucucu Paloma” is a song about a husband mourning his wife leaving him.
He spends his nights looking for her and crying in the home they once shared together. After his death, he is reborn as a dove that coos every morning, searching for her.
That is quite literally the story. But that story is not real to me. So, I have given the song a different meaning.
In my reinterpretation, the song is about a husband who never appreciated his wife. He spends his nights in the cantina and out with other women. One night, she dies of a broken heart. And her spirit haunts him in the form of a dove. That dove visits him every morning and sings for him. He sings back to her, asking her for forgiveness, and begging to join her. Instead, she pays her daily visits and her songs sound more like cries.
We are all haunted by voices no one else can hear.
Sometimes the soul of a person appears to you.
Sometimes it’s her presence you feel, cooking alongside you. Other times, it’s in a dream.
For me and my family, my abuela often appeared as an animal. My tía had the world’s sweetest, most capricciosa chihuahua, Lolita. She was a cloud of thin white fur, with two light brown patches, and eyes the color of unrefined cane sugar, piloncillo. Whenever we made eye-contact, she’d wriggle towards me, and slide onto my shoulder, her head pressed against my heart.
I was able to make little cries, chiadas, that sounded like puppy cries. I would whimper as loudly as I could, and Lolita would join me, and she would tell me her penas, her worries. My whole family would laugh as I hugged Lola and the two of us told each other secrets no one else understood.
I loved that little dog and always thought: what a gift to have my favorite creature visit me twice in one lifetime. What a gift to understand her cries.
“Cucurrucucu Paloma” was originally written by the Mexican songwriter Tomás Méndez for the ranchera singer, Lola Beltrán in the 1950s.
CREDIT: Photo provided by Michelle Threadgould
It is a classic mariachi song covered by everyone from Joan Baez to the Chilean jazz singer, Camila Meza.
But no one quite owns the song like Caetano. In 2014, I saw him perform for the first time at the Hollywood Bowl. He was 71, with the same brushed-back, all white hair of my abuela, and the same seventies style glasses. And yet, even in his seventies, he possessed the energy of David Byrne, who dances, improvises, and keeps his performers on their toes as he makes it clear: this stage is mine.
Juran que el mismo cielo
Se estremecía al oír su llanto
Cómo sufrió por ella
Y hasta en su muerte la fue llamando
Like the character in “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” waiting for their dove, we all leaned in to hear his song. But in this canto of memory and longing, I didn’t feel the suffering. Instead, a song that had once helped me to process lost worlds had new meaning. It was a tribute, a calling in of the ancestors, and I could feel her presence there in the open amphitheater. As Caetano danced onstage, I knew that she was quietly shuffling next to me, and would be for as long as I could appreciate her song.
This year, for Día de los Muertos, I will light a Saint Judas candle for my abuela.
CREDIT: Photo provided by Michelle Threadgould
I will play “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” and Selena, and Nirvana Unplugged. My abuela used to call Kurt Cobain a living Jesus, and sometimes I think faith is inherited, because I still believe her.
On her ofrenda, filled with marigolds and sugar skulls, I will write a prayer, a spell: May we hold onto what is left of our culture. May La Mission live on. May we never feel like the walking dead in our home.