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Release your conquered heart


As far as Día de los Muertos altars go, mine isn’t fancy. Strictly speaking, it isn’t even culturally correct. It boasts a few photos, candy, fake marigolds purchased at a big box craft store, a couple of singing calaveras entombed in glass, a doll for the baby sister I never knew, a candle, and a bottle of tequila reposado. The latter will do justice both to my Mexican ancestors and the mother-in-law with whom I shared many a conversation over margaritas. But the altar is a far cry from the Aztec altars that preceded the Spanish conquest and those that believers today spend hours crafting in order to celebrate their dead. Still, in my own defense, this is my first altar. And it’s taken me decades to loosen the teachings of my past in order to get just this far. 

It’s not my attitude toward death that delayed me. I mean, do I fear death? Well, who doesn’t? I certainly won’t go gently. But I’m not squeamish about it. As a journalist I interviewed and photographed dying people, spoke to them about unfulfilled dreams and documented their lives as they died. And even before that, my Old World culture taught me that death is simply another part of life.

Grow up in a Mexican family and you learn early about the moans and sighs of the dying, about wakes and funerals. When I was in elementary school, I visited my grandmother’s bedside plenty of times when she was dying of cancer. Once, during those weeks and months, my sister and I careened down the hall near our grandmother’s bedroom in a burst of shouts and giggles. My mother marched into the hall and pulled us into that room to hear our abuela moaning in pain. It was a hard lesson in respecting the end of life and death’s imminent arrival. Who knew it could be so physically painful to die? Who know it could be so marked with nostalgia?

And when my grandmother finally did die, I discovered the days immediately following death have hallmarks of their own: the aroma of carnations, coffee, cigarettes, and even the beery breath of mourning men. The texture of limp tissues clotted with snot, the papery cheeks of old aunts, and the calloused palms of cattle-roping uncles. I learned that for us survivors, the pain of loss was felt as much in the ill-fitting shoes we wore to the cemeteries as in the tears flooding our eyes.

Still, while my family has clung to some of our oldest traditions (we held my grandmother’s wake in her home, and I’ve watched my cousins pick up shovels and literally bury their mothers) we were never the type who constructed altars to our deceased loved ones on Día de los Muertos. We did not set up their photos along with offerings of their favorite foods, sugared calaveras and whisky bottles. Instead, we remembered our dead by attending mass and reciting novenas for the repose of their souls. On All Souls Day we visited graves, flowers in hands. Ours was a solemn remembrance.

Looking back at my family’s past, I can’t help but think about those who arrived on the shores of the Americas all those centuries ago. Were they to see us now, they would rejoice at the depth of our submission. How conquered we were. How absent in our lives were the customs of our Aztec forebears, their weeks-long celebrations to the god and goddess of death, their offerings to the loved ones who’d already passed over. Looking at us, they would believe – and celebrate – that we’d yanked out by the roots the narrative of our past. We no longer carried scraps of forgotten DNA that compel us to feed our dead. They’d believe that even in our deepest slumber, we didn’t dream of cleaning the bones and cradling the skulls of our loved ones, then wake up to the scent of marigolds. For so many years, I was the conquered. I believed our universe to be so narrow that it excludes all but one story line.

But then my mother got sick. The kind of sick that tests not just your beliefs, but your human patience and strength, that tests everything you ever believed about yourself and your limits. In the face of my mother’s terminal illness, “thy will be done” just didn’t make any sense. Especially after my sister stumbled on one of my mother’s own prayers last year. It was a brief scrawl, a note to her god that admitted a fear of the confusion beginning to cloud her brain. A note that was a plea not just for understanding but for healing, for help.

“Thy will be done?” I thought. “Thy will be done?”

Of course, by the time we read her frail words we had no way of knowing when our mother written it. Not recently, that was certain. Because by then, my name had long disappeared from my mother’s brain, and so had her ability to write. God? Did my mother still remember him at the time we found this note? I don’t know. But I wondered if he remembered her in the slow withering of her mind, her organs, her muscles, her cells, and if he loved this woman who had spent her life loving and serving him.

In one way, her prayer had been answered. Because there are those who’ve helped care for my mother, those who’ve cooked her meals, changed her clothes, washed her body, and tucked her into sleep at night. Women, all of them: young, old, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, sisters. They have helped her. And they reminded me that I come from a line of strong women on my mother’s side. Her grandmother – my great-grandmother – raised a family in Mexico in the bloody wake of the country’s revolution. She managed to keep the family fed, her daughters safe from would-be rapists, and her sons alive, even my grandfather who as a boy, once somehow offended a member of Pancho Villa’s vanguard and barely escaped being hanged for his perceived insult. My own grandmother, the one whose slow death I witnessed, saw two of her sons shot and survive. Then she buried a third after someone had put a bullet in his head. My mother was the one who identified her dead brother, something I learned from an aunt after my mother had already, perhaps blessedly, forgotten the way her sibling died.

Maybe there was a tender root of remembrance still deep within me. One that my sisters blew on gently when I read my mother’s prayer, one that stirred and pulled toward them, becoming a channel through which I heard their voices: “Let us help you. Talk to us. We will help you. We will hold you up. Talk to us. Release your conquered heart.”

So I did. And I do.

Is it any wonder then that my first Día de los Muertos altar honors the women in my past and pays homage to their lives? The grandmother, great-grandmother, the aunts and the cousins, none of whom I have good pictures of but who are represented by a cornhusk doll cradling a cornhusk baby. My mother-in-law, who died this year and who, like those to whom I’m tied by blood, was one of the strong ones – she’s included, too.

Oh, I know my sisters all prayed to the God of the conquerors: “Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.” It was a narrative they embraced, a dogma they took to heart. But by connecting with me, they’ve given me the gift of a new perspective, an added narrative bright and red to incorporate into my being. This time, I will not let it go.

©Beatriz Terrazas

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