On November 3rd, there were a number of well-meaning posts on social media by white folks reminding other white folks that Día de los Muertos was not a party occasion, an excuse to get drunk and act stupid (a la cinco de mayo, which is actually not much of a holiday anywhere but in the USA, and most folks don’t even know why it’s noted at all), or to be in calavera makeup with the sole intention of being cute, and to be respectful of this Hispanic cultural event that actually has its roots in pre-Columbian native civilizations.
And while I’m all for respect among humans, I was irked by the assumption that people participating in it have no idea what they’re doing, or why. I think that’s an incorrect assumption here in the Old Pueblo, where for 23 years the city has been acknowledging the day–or near it, anyway–which is far less a Mexican version of Halloween than it is a Hispanic Memorial Day not limited to veterans, but for all those who have passed on, with the All Souls Procession, which started out as a personal grief-driven performance art piece and has since grown to an important city event that attracts some 35,000+ participants and spectators. I’ve gone for the last two years, and it has been a warm, yet serious, event, and I’ve never seen it treated as anything but. 35,000 people march, and perform, and watch, and it is not terribly loud or raucous. Things don’t get out of hand. People don’t misbehave in any appreciable numbers. It is, in my observation, sincere, and more thoughtful than somber, and I think that’s appropriate. It isn’t a fun time, really, but it IS a good time. At least it is for me; I suppose that depends on what you bring into it, and what you hope to get out of it.
Because I’ve been studying Spanish, and the culture and history around the language, for over 20 years, Día de los Muertos is a holy day I’ve been aware of and appreciated intellectually, but only really felt since Antiguo died. Since then, I’ve taken the time to mark it as the day of remembrance it is, if only privately. But the last two years, I’ve actually participated in the procession in his memory.
What I like about it is that it gives everyone an opportunity and an outlet for the grief and loss in their life. So often, we expect people to “get over it,” to move beyond their grief as quickly as possible, pick themselves up, and go about their business as if nothing happened. Those who have lost loved ones, however, know better. They know it doesn’t work that way, that you don’t stop loving people just because they die, and that you don’t stop missing them just because it would be easier for everyone around you, and maybe even yourself, if you would. For tens of thousands of people to come together, carrying photos of family members (even furry ones), to publicly remember them, to insist that the world acknowledge that they were here and they were loved, for us all to do it without hesitation, or fear, that we’re making someone uncomfortable in our remembrance, as so often happens in conversation with others, well…that’s powerful. Because the universality of the condition, which we cannot help but recognize when we are surrounded by others who are there for the same reasons, is both heartbreaking and encouraging. Grief is a lonely place; but when everywhere you look, there are people who know that lonely road, too, I think you start to take death a little less personally. Not that your loss isn’t painful, but rather that it is an inevitable part of being human, something that is not a matter of “if” but “when.”
My friend, Heather, and I joined the procession near the front, and were running a little late, so we didn’t get to do the milling around and admiring of other people’s efforts that we did last year before it got dark. The route this year was 3.2 miles one way, and ended (as it did last year) at the Mercado San Agustin, a big, dark, dusty field I’ve never seen in daylight. At the end, we decided to join the crowd watching rather than enter the unlit finale grounds, to see what we’d missed behind us.
It’s hard to describe the variety of makeup, costume, and displays, and the people of all ages, that make up this event, so I’ll let these pictures do it for me. My impression is that the people who take the time to participate in the Procession know exactly what the meaning of el Día de los Muertos is, while simultaneously creating that meaning anew each year through the way they choose express themselves. I haven’t built a float or carried a placard, but I always carry Antiguo in my heart, and the bracelets I wore on my hand were significant: one was a replica of the one that I made for him. The other was one I bought in California when we were shopping together in Mendocino. Otherwise, for me it’s makeup and making the pilgrimage itself. And for a cripple like me, walking 7 miles round trip back to the car is a pretty big deal.
I was talking about the makeup with someone, who interpreted it as us all walking as the thing we fear most–facing our fear of death by, for just one night, being Death. I told her I hadn’t considered that interpretation; for me, the calavera makeup is an explicit acknowledgement that we always walk with death. From the day we are born, we are dying; it’s merely a question of when, and it can come out of nowhere at any time. To believe otherwise is to embrace a comforting delusion, but a delusion nonetheless. I suppose from a certain perspective, that could seem morbid, but I don’t see it that way. I tend to think that accepting the reality of mortality allows us to have a healthier relationship with death, and life for that matter, than the understandably common denial/shock response to what is, ultimately, the destination of every single one of us, no matter how good our luck, our genes, or our diet and exercise regimen. Sorting through the avalanche of emotional and existential stuff that hit me after Antiguo died, excruciating as it was, left me unafraid of death. Dying still scares me; I don’t like to hurt, and if I can avoid a long, painful illness, I’d just as soon do that, but being dead? Not a bit.
As we approached the finish line and finally paused to see those who came after us, I was amazed at how many there were. They just kept coming and coming, and long after we left the scene, they were still coming. And I kept thinking that the procession itself, with so many of us dressed as death, was actually a metaphor for life. We were near the front of the procession, though there were others ahead of us. There were many, many others, too many to count, coming up behind us, but we weren’t terribly aware of them; we just knew they were there, making the same journey as we were. And during that journey, we all stepped in the same potholes and tripped over the same covered power cord in the street and had our ankles banged by strollers and wagons, and were threatened by unwieldy displays carried by the tired or the inattentive. Some of us made the trip in wheelchairs. Some of us limped. Some of us, myself included, were hurting physically. Some of us were carried or towed, sound asleep. But still we kept going.
We just made our way, one step at a time, to the end. Some people got there before we did. We got there before some others. But eventually, we all got to the same place. Only the people outside of us, standing at the side of the road watching us pass, could see our progress from start to finish. It reminds me of a quotation from a book I read after Antiguo died, which said, “we cannot know the truth of ourselves; we can only live it.”
Each year I’ve left the procession with a greater sense of my own humanity, and the feeling of community, of belonging, and of the comforting ordinariness that confers upon me. It reminds me that I have not been singled out for special pain in this world, that what I have experienced is nothing more, and nothing less, than the human experience. For me, that makes it easier to take, because it relieves me of the self-imposed expectations that I should’ve been smarter, and better, enough to avoid all the hurt this world has offered me; that such a thing is even possible. I’ve walked among 35,000 other people who are all the evidence I need to know it’s not true. It is not true of all those who will come after me, and it was not true for all those who have gone before me.
And in that, I walk for myself as much as I do for Antiguo. I walk in memory of him, because I miss him, and in memory of his place in this parade of life, and my own, knowing it, too, will come to an end some day. And despite all these harsh truths, I am still here. Still walking. We all are. And we damn well deserve a parade for that.