A windless morning followed by a balmy afternoon. Cirrus clouds crawled up the gulf, working to stir up monsoon activity on landfall in Arizona. The southern bay where we live was glassy and we could catch slightly modified reflections of the southern land point a few miles across the water. It was wonderfully rewarding just to be in such a tranquil place, watching the birds and the bait trying to survive. The surface of the water was slick but darkened in splotches where the bait was driven upward by larger predators from below. The surface-breaching bait caused the water to sparkle in the morning light and the sound of a thousand tiny fish falling back into the water is unmistakable; the larger fish threatening from below and the birds lurking above. There is no protection for the young and innocent.
Our friends stopped by to ask if we would like to join them for a gathering in our village, at the plaza and at 6 in the evening for Día de Los Muertos. We told them we would enjoy that and agreed to meet the next day and drive to the village together.
I have read about this particular day in Mexican communities but have never participated in it. I wondered if it was an event that had triggered what we think of as Halloween. Should we bring candy for the children I wondered?
"Let's just play it by ear." our friends said. And we did.
We drove the rocky road 4 miles into the village, the five of us, with baby Esperanza giggling and cooing and beginning to form words in our back seat. She is a sweet baby and caused me to reflect on the younger years of our two boys, taking me back over other rocky roads.
We arrived at the plaza and parked and disembarked and entered the throng. Children were dressed in small costumes and a hundred people were wandering through the respectful gravesite alters representing specific individuals who had died. On each alter the surviving family had arranged items they remembered from the deceased person's past and designed to attract the departed souls; photographs, preferred foods, music, on one an entire case of makeup and brushes and facial applications. Dates of birth and death were posted and one was young. How sad and how respectful and happy it was at the same time. Those that had passed on were still with us forever, an active part of our lives, never to be forgotten.
A path led to each alter. The path was created by small stones, some colored, and edged by unlighted candles or other objects that defined the entrance to the alter for the soul of the deceased. As light faded in the evening children lit the candles on alters and their paths and soon there were flickering lights everywhere. I asked our friend, Cristina, a young marine biology major working on her Masters, what the arrangement meant. She told us, essentially, that each scene represented a path; a path of the life lost. The entrance pathway was an invitation to enter the alter for that person. The alter was a composition of the person's most valued items and what they might most want to enjoy on their day, perhaps to take back with them to heaven, in memory, when the celebration was complete. What a wonderful concept.
We left before the evening was over; baby Esperanza was fussing for sleep and we had a long, slow drive. We watched the children being rewarded for their costume considerations. Applause was prominent and we participated. And soon we were on the road south to our house.
On the ride we were discussing the evening and I wondered how we in the United States have gotten so far without this same event. We have Halloween, but we have no Día de Los Muertos. No specific day to celebrate the moments we remember of the times that we spent with those that came before us, those that led us to this point, those that evolved us to where we are.
The next day we were driving through the village. The cemetery was filled with flowers. Most gravesites were covered with orange paper flowers as there are no live orange flowers here this time of year. Cristina told me the orange color represents light, that it comes from the pre-Hispanic days, the Aztecs or Toltecs or even before we had names for races.
It was a day, a simple event in the plaza of a small Mexican village that will hang in my mental closet forever, never forgotten.
I'll wear it every year from here on with pride.