(Me and my glittery calavera, who I named Fernando.)
It’s no big secret that I absolutely love Dia de los Muertos. It’s by far one of my favorite holidays, even though I only started celebrating in earnest once I started college.
To be honest, growing up in south Texas, I knew very little about it. It was something that was never celebrated back home for some reason. Instead, it was a part of the stories told by my grandma and her sister about their childhood in central Mexico. I never associated it with something that could be a part of my life in the present; it seemed to remain in the distant past, tucked away in my abuela’s memories.
Fast forward to freshman year of college. I was assigned one of my first feature stories for PLAY, the weekly entertainment section of The Daily that I ended up devoting a good chunk of four years to. I was to go to Pilsen and check out the National Museum of Mexican Art’s exhibit on Dia de los Muertos. Armed with little knowledge about both my topic and the area (I had never strayed any further than downtown Chicago), I ventured out on what’s now known as the Pink Line and headed southwest.
I chatted with a tour guide at the museum as he showed me around and explained the Dia de los Muertos exhibit to me. It hit me then that this was a holiday that seemed to play a significant role in the Mexican-American community in Chicago. I wondered again why I had never so much as seen a sugar skull my whole life back in my tiny border town. It was also then I wished I could call my grandma to regale me with more stories about life in Mexico but by then, she was already gone, having passed away only the year before. The sights, sounds and smells of Pilsen had instantly made me miss her.
So instead, I called my mom and asked her about about Dia de los Muertos. She had the exact reaction I was expecting: “Ay mijita, your grandma would know so much more about this than me.”
But she did say something that resonated with me (and still does to this day): “I do know that it’s not a day to mourn the dead, but to celebrate the lives of the people we loved.”
Ever since then, I’ve seen Dia de los Muertos as a time when I can celebrate my grandmother’s life. It’s now been seven years since she passed away and I still miss her terribly. As she and my mom raised me, losing her was a lot like losing a parent. She was a strong woman who raised 10 children, mostly on her own. She came to the States by herself and started out in San Antonio working in kitchens before moving to my tiny hometown and opening a restaurant of her own. She had a big laugh and drove a giant green Ford truck. She was overall, one of the biggest influences in my life and my hero. I often wish more than anything that I could have shared my newfound love of Dia de los Muertos with her; I know it would have made her really happy.
Just last year, I decided to honor my grandmother and cement my love for Dia de los Muertos in the most permanent way possible: I got a sugar skull piece tattooed on the right side of my back. The decision to do this was actually a year in the making. The fact that I waited so long before going through with it told me that it something I had to do. It’s the largest tattoo I have to date, the most colorful and of course, the most painful to get. But I still think it was completely worth it:
I chose to incorporate yellow roses because they were my grandmother’s favorite flower. The colors in the sugar skull were actually chosen by my tattoo artist in Austin (who I think did an absolutely fantastic job), Claudia Billy Baca, as she had done several Mexican folk art pieces in the past. I see this tattoo in the mirror every day and love it still. It’s not the most traditional thing to do, but it’s my personal way of honoring my abuela and my heritage.