*Names have been changed to protect the innocent from the living and the dead.
The day after Halloween, as my friends were being dragged to the grave sites of their dead relatives, I would spend my post-trick or treating time nursing a sugar hangover. I began my All Saint’s Day mornings by slipping back into a white fleece bunny costume, tinged beige by the sand that blankets every surface in El Paso. The other 8-year-olds got up early to make the trek out to the Mount Carmel or Concordia cemeteries, where they cleaned and weeded their relatives’ tombstones. As I ate the rest of my treats well into the evening, my friends, with the same orange Chihuahuan Desert sky above them, would fall asleep nuzzled against a tombstone or on top of a bed of plastic marigolds as their elders drank, sang, and reminisced into the night.
I learned about this other world not at school or in a library, but in that place where most people learn valuable life lessons-a bar. A friend and I sat in a cushioned booth in one of those restaurant bars with pine molding stained to look expensive and cleaned to a high gloss. A place that looks the same in every American city; only in El Paso, every booth, table, and stool is occupied by a brown face. We talked about the dead over a platter of deep-fried vegetables and mixed drinks. Here along the border, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated as any other holiday-heavy on capitalism.
My friend, whom I’ll call La Nora, was lamenting the commercialization of her venerated holiday. She was upset to see vendors push their wares at El Paso cemeteries. In the same breath, she admitted stopping at the puestesitos before heading inside the gates to visit her relatives these last couple of years, since she’s been too busy to bake pan de muerto or make other food. On the Day of the Dead, you can walk into Target or Wal-Mart and purchase calavera candles and trinkets, even skeleton figurines, or go to the mall, where Lucky Brand Jeans sells long-sleeved shirts with skeleton graphics on the back, or buy raw sugarcane dirt cheap.
“I can’t imagine my life without my dead,” La Nora said. “And even though there were times that I wanted Juan Gabriel dead because, well, you know, now when I hear “Amor Eterno,” it always makes me cry. When I don’t get to go the cemetery, I crank up his CD, light candles at home, and buy flowers for my abuela.”
Then I asked the question that stopped her monologue, “Yeah, but what really happens there in the cemeteries?”
La Nora whispered, “I thought you were Catholic, too,” and looked at me like I had stolen money from her purse.
I said, “No, I’m Pentecostal. We don’t honor our dead. We ignore them.”
This made her snicker and her gaze was one of mild annoyance. “When our dead are buried, they are permanently separated from the living, so there’s no need for visits,” I added.
She gasped. I told her that I could not remember a single time in childhood that I visited the graveside of a dead relative. I did recall that when I asked about my long-gone bisabuela, Isabel, the reply from my grandmother was always the same: “We let the dead bury the dead, like Jesus said in the Bible.” The metaphysics were baffling to me at 8 years old. I remember wasting many hours holed up in my room staring at the bumpy ceiling, wondering how ghosts lifted shovels or operated Bobcats to dig those deep holes for the recently departed.
A mist of tequila rained on my face as La Nora tried to choke back her laughter, but at least she stopped eyeing me with suspicion. She wiped my face with her polyester napkin. It didn’t soak up anything, so she quit and described the cardboard altars she helped erect at her uncle’s graveside. He was a special man, she said, who was taken from her family too soon, much like my own uncle, Danny. She said that every family member brought something to the cemetery as an ofrenda: food, drink, photos, boom boxes, plastic-flower crosses, and trinkets. “When you come from a family of eight, the cositas can really stack up. It’s just that on Dia de los Muertos, the veil between the living and the dead disappears, and the dead join us again for a full day. They can smell taste, feel, hear, and touch. They long to hear our voices, feel our warmth, hear our songs, and most of all, taste the food and drink they miss so much.”
“And you really believe that?” I said.
“Of course,” she said.
I laughed long and hard. I couldn’t help myself. The notion was ridiculous to me, and finally, finally La Nora laughed, too. I wasn’t sure if it was the tequila talking, but she said that what she remembers most about Dia was her tio Chencho’s favorite shot glass. She admitted sipping tequila from it. She could no longer read the words, Las Vegas, on the glass, but it still had the four aces on it, though they were translucent, “probably rubbed off completely by now,” she said. La Nora’s Aunt Amparo brought the glass and the tequila to the cemetery every November for her brother’s altar. It was the only thing in the plastic bag when the morgue returned his belongings to his wife, Celia, who gave the glass to Amparo in disgust.
La Nora said that Amparo would set the glass on the flat, granite stone next to the framed picture of Chencho. As she poured the Cuervo, she always said, “Since your wife didn’t love you enough to even drop by and visit, I brought you a little traguito.”
When the family went to visit their grandfather’s grave three rows away, La Nora said she would fall behind and take a look at Chencho’s picture. She always tried to wipe the years of caldo de res stains off the glass frame because it was “bien crusty” from so many Dia meals. Caldo was his favorite, and his twin sister, Chencha, always brought the beef-and-vegetable stew at night. La Nora would sneak a drink from the glass filled with golden liquid, and it would burn her nose and throat.
Upon the family’s return to his grave, Amparo would say: “Look at the shot glass. It’s half empty again. He’s here. He’s here with us.” Many of the older people would proclaim a miracle, and when La Nora heard the rosary beads clicking against the granite tombstones, she would pray novenas. When everyone finished, Amparo would say, “Chencho drank tequila like it was water. It was probably what kept him alive so long.” This would make everyone laugh and reflect quietly until Chencho’s brother, Ruly, would say, “He’s probably making his movida on SeÃ±ora Ordonez next door. She’s gotta be lonely, solita there without um, er …” La Nora held up the white napkin from her lap and pretended to read it, like her family read the tombstone at the cemetery, “Eu-gen-io, 1943 until who knows?”
Ruly’s laughter would sound like a hiccup attack. La Nora then repeated what her uncle would say in Spanish, “Well, it’s a good thing Eugenio is still alive, because we’d probably feel rumbling underfoot from the fight the couple would have about Chencho.”
I laughed with La Nora, and then we quieted down. “He’s dead now, too,” she said. She poked her finger into her glass, stirred, then licked it clean, and asked quickly, “No, serious, what do you do to honor your dead?”
“I am serious-nothing,” I said. “First time I ever heard about the Day of the Dead was in college.”
“They teach it? That don’t seem right.”
“It’s not. They made it seem all sacred and solemn,” I said. “They said it was an Aztec tradition filled with honor and pageantry, but damn, if I’d known Dia de los Muertos was more of a cross between a wake and a keg party, I’d have left my rabbit costume on the floor and gone to the cemetery with all you guys.”
Christine Granados is an award-winning author who lives in Central Texas. Her collection of short stories, Brides and Sinners in El Chuco, was published in 2006.