A Fond Childhood Memory of Día de los Muertos

altar for Día de los Muertos in Historic Downtown San Luis Potosí

When I lived in Mexico one of my favorite holidays, along with Christmas, was Día de los Muertos. 

The first Día de los Muertos memory that comes to mind, is getting off the public bus with my Mom at el centro or downtown square.  People go to el centro to buy specialty items such as arts and crafts, fruit and vegetables, as well as other items needed for the altar de los muertos. 

There is an old saying in Mexico: “A quien madruga Dios lo ayuda.”  The English equivalent would be, “The early bird catches the worm.”  Many Mexican business owners and blue-collar workers live their lives by this mantra.  Many street vendors, whose livelihood depends on selling goods in these open markets, work hard to stay on top of the competition.  Getting to the market early in the morning, setting up their tents and displaying their wares before anyone else, sets them apart from the rest of the businesses.

That day, standing in el centro with my Mom, was a beautiful sunny, breezy, and chilly morning. I guess it could be no different than any autumn day here in the United States with one exception.  In Mexico, fall is a season of reflection and culturally it is celebrated in a very different way.  As I write this anecdote, right in the middle of October, I am looking out the window in my home.  It feels and looks like any autumn day in Mexico.  However, here in the States, the comings and goings of people start slowing down to a trickle; everywhere there is silence and calm.  People go to work and children go to school while daylight wastes away.  Then, when daylight disappears, people hurry inside, keenly aware that the cold and windy days are announcing that autumn is in the air and it’s almost time to hibernate for the season.

In Mexico, autumn is a time for reflection, but by no means it translates into sadness or boredom.

The following is one of my anecdotes of when I was a child living in San Luis Potosí, Mexico celebrating el Día de los Muertos;

“As I got off the public bus with my Mom, holding her hand the whole time.  All of the sudden, the air around me felt alive.  I felt the energy and commotion radiating from the street vendors gathered there.  I could feel their dedication and optimism as they busied themselves setting up their tables and tents.  They came to el centro to sell all kinds of goods for grown-ups and kids alike.

There were tons of colors everywhere, spilling from every nook and cranny in the market. It came from the papel picado decorating the streets everywhere with bold colors such as bright blue, red, orange, purple, and green.  The color also spilled forth, in red and yellow hues, from the different seasonal fruits on display; calabazas (pumpkins), squash, sweet potatoes.  And of course, the market was colored as well by the incomparable and unique flor de cempasúchil, the flower that represents Día de los Muertos.

I saw calaveritas de azucar (Mexican sugar skulls); one of my favorites.  You could buy calaveritas and have the seller write your name on them – there were chocolate ones, white ones, big ones and small ones, even cute, tiny ones.

The smell of copal and of freshly-made tortillas and roasted chile from the food vendors was a feast to all of my senses.  It made me hungry as I walked around with Mom looking at the merchandise from the street vendors.  The sun-tanned women with thick and brown skin, almost as tanned as mine, looked at me with a smile.  They asked if I wanted to buy a calaverita de azucar with my name on it.  I asked my Mom if I could have one and she agreed.”

Woman with Cempasúchil Flowers
Photo Credit: Jaime Cristóbal López

Walking around the streets of Historic Downtown San Luis Potosí, or any other city or town in Mexico, during Día de los Muertos is a jolt of stimuli.  All of the senses –touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste –were stimulated at once, creating powerful, fully-fleshed memories that are easy to recall.  That is how I am able to easily go to that memory whenever I want to.  I want to keep this memory forever.

So, whenever I see a gloomy, overcast autumn day here in the US, where I now live, I close my eyes and travel down memory lane back to that mercado.  I smell, see, feel, taste, and hear in my mind the joyful moments I spent as a child during Día de los Muertos in San Luis Potosí, and I sigh with satisfaction.

Poem to my Grandmother

On October 4th my grandmother would have turned 84 years old.  I wrote this poem for her.

My Grandmother in 2014

“Dear Grandmother,

Today you would have been 84 years old

I miss being able to call you anytime I want to

I miss when you used to call me and my mother on our birthday

I miss that afternoon when as a child, I had to say goodbye to you

I miss your Mexican cooking, your white pozole and your tamales were the best

I miss when you used to rise early, like the sun, to start your day off

I miss your scolding, even your unpleasant screaming around the house has become something to miss

I miss seeing you laugh and seeing you happy

I miss hearing you sing Lola Beltran’s ranchera songs as you washed your clothes by your garden

I miss being able to knock on your terracotta painted door

I miss your house, la Casa de mi Abuelita, always waiting for me whenever I visited Mexico

I miss that playground, los Juegos, around the corner of your house where many fond childhood memories are still kept

I choose to keep these loving memories of you forever in my heart

I love you and miss you, Abuelita!”

My grandmother’s white pozole
My grandmother’s tamales