Días de Muertos


As my mother drives me through Valley Memorial Gardens, she points out the plots now priced at a thousand dollars, double what she paid four years ago. “Mil y pico cada pozo,” she says and then shows me another section where the plots are two thousand.

Not long ago she decided that she and my father should be buried closer to my sister’s grave, so she traded their old plot for a spot across the street from where my sister is buried. The empty spaces on either side of my sister have been held for my brother and me. “Pa’ un día que Dios se acuerda de ustedes,” she says. “Si se casan, o no se casan, como quiera the lots are there.”

My mother—who used to warn us to never leave the house with our hair still wet from the shower or else risk facial paralysis, who used to tell us to shake the sheets to scare out the spiders—now tries to prepare us for the afterlife.

La muerte de segura la tiene uno. Con más que uno no quiere hablar de la muerte, you have to know that someday we all have to leave. Nobody is gonna stay. Un día como quiera te tienes que ir al otro mundo. Como dice uno, ‘You’re gonna go to that other world—,” but she doesn’t finish her thought, as if to admit that she really doesn’t know what to expect “over there.”

We pull up to where my sister has been buried for more years than she lived. The sprinklers shoot arcs of water, and we don’t get out of the truck. We don’t have to. Over the years, we’ve visited her grave so many times that we’ve memorized the words on her marker: “She shared her smiles but hid her tears.” My sister was murdered the summer after she graduated from high school; her body was found in a pasture of mesquite, huisache, and tall dry grass behind our house. We never found out who killed her.

Now, almost 20 years later, my mother looks at my sister’s grave, kisses her fingers and waves them out toward the distance and memory and whispers, “Love you, m’hija.” She motions to the tree, planted around the time of my sister’s death, casting its shadow over her grave in the afternoon. “She don’t have to be in the sun that much,” my mother says. With a look, she measures the distance between the plot where my sister lies—where my brother and I will eventually lie—and where she and my father will be buried.

De aquí allá,” she says, making a mental note of the distance. She didn’t want us to end up too far away from each other. “D’you think I did right by changing?” she asks.

She’s still not sure moving was a good idea. It may be too much to consider when there’s so much death here in the Valley and overseas. Nearby, the cemetery has opened a new section for soldiers killed in Iraq. “He was the first one, killed about a month ago,” my mother says, pointing to a grave. “He was from Mission.” She’s not sure of his age; she thinks he was about 20.

Te imaginas,” my mother says as she turns to me, “el otro día ‘taba yo sentada aquí y dije, ‘magínate tu, a contar cada d’ese“—she’s talking about counting headstones—”tanta gente ‘ta muerta que vivía antes y que ahora no está? De todas edades. We’re not even talking about old people. We’re talking kids. Babies.”

As we drive through the back part of the cemetery, where the ground is drier, the trees farther apart—almost defensive in their isolation—my mother nods to a cement irrigation pipe. Less than a month ago my Uncle Tano’s burned and beaten body had been left inside a pipe like that.

Allí lo echaron,” my mother says, “left him in one of those pipes. They said que ‘taba bien decomposing, bien quema’o.” County sheriffs found him. “Went missing,” she says, “y el Thursday morning, they found him.”

The sheriffs say that they still don’t know for sure whether whoever attacked my uncle later doused him in diesel.

Pobrecito mi hermano,” sighs my mother. She then points out the other family graves. My sweet but quarrelsome grandparents, Gonzalo and Victorina Garza, who lived into their mid-80s and seemed to fight one another each day of their married lives. Next to them is my Uncle Agustin, dead of a heart attack, and his wife Benita, dead of emphysema caused by one too many hand-rolled cigarettes. Fake orange flowers mark my cousin Juan. Alone in the macho heaviness of our family, he hung himself with an electrical cord soon after he was diagnosed as HIV positive.

“Most of the time I put a lot of flowers,” my mother says. She likes the ones they sell at the downtown dollar store, with the sentimental drops of clear resin. They’re supposed to represent morning dew or tears. One day, she says, she called her sister Belsa, Juan’s mother, and got mad at her. Belsa seemed to have all the time in the world for her new boyfriend, but no time for the memory of her own dead son. “Hey, tienes tiempo pa’ ir a llevar aquel a comer,'” my mother told her, “‘pa’ comprarle camisas, pa’ comprarle anillos en Christmas. Por qué no le puedes comprarle flores a Juanito?’ Le dije, ‘You know what, ‘horita, en el cementerio, Juanito no tiene flores.’ Y dijo, ‘Oh, que mañana vengo.’ Pero no. No vino.” One of Juan’s sisters brought him flowers in the end.

Then my mother identifies the grave of one of her sisters-in-law and measures the love her survivors had for her by the size and weight of the headstone. “Uno chiquito no más l’hicieron así—chiquitíto. Fue todo que la pusieron.” The husband has since remarried.

As for her own grave, my mother bought a package for herself and my father that included the two lots, casket liners, and headstones. She bought it to save money. My parents’ headstone is in place, their birthdates already inscribed. All that’s missing are the dates of their deaths. My father blew up when he heard about it.

My mother was visiting an aunt in Florida when the grim reapers at Valley Memorial Gardens called the house and told my father marble slabs had been put in place. “Ellos lo pusieron porque ya ‘ta pagado,” my mother tells me now, as if she still had to defend herself. “We’re not the only ones,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who do that—a lot of ’em. Ya no más vienes y pagas, and they do it so that they don’t have to worry about it later—pa’ no andar mortificando a la gente. They’re not gonna be doing everything the day you die.”

According to my mother, if you don’t have money for a burial, you can file a claim with the county. They helped her with my uncle’s funeral and my cousin’s funeral, too.

My mother still waits for the autopsy report and a criminal investigation to find out how and why Uncle Tano died. The rest of the family doesn’t want to know or otherwise get involved. Maybe it’s because of the circumstances of his death, or maybe it’s because we’ve become used to so much senseless violence here and everywhere. It’s that kind of attitude that has made the Valley a place of mourning and loss, where only God “remembers” to take you, and the rest of us choose to forget that you’re gone.

Erasmo Guerra grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and is now a writer in New York.