photo by Katy Park
I write this near midnight on November 2nd, on the Day of the Dead, or, as it is known in Mexico where the celebration originated, Dia de los Muertos.
This evening NPR aired a human interest piece by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes about the holiday. Diaz-Cortes describes how she travelled to Mexico in early October to be with her dying grandmother. When her grandmother dies, Diaz-Cortes doesn’t feel sad, like she expected, only numb. Four days after returning to Los Angeles, emotions still dull and subdued, Diaz-Cortes attends Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Filtered through the dark, dense layers of her unspent grief, the altars at the cemetery appear staged and garish, superficial creations inspired by Hollywood excess. But as she begins to connect with the living who built the altars, Diaz-Cortes also connects with their dead, their stories and the authentic expressions of love and longing the altars represent. Surrounded by those who await the homecoming of their dead, Diaz-Cortes is reminded of her own “muertitos” and the tears she expected when her grandmother died finally arrive.
Two years ago, while searching online for gravestones, I found an announcement for the 2010 Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where LaLa is buried. That year the event happened to be on October 30, the first anniversary of LaLa’s death. These minor coincidences conjured a metaphysical sense of significance in my mind. I emailed the event organizer that same night.
I am not descended from the peoples of Latin America. With my anglo surname and mid-western upbringing, I felt like an outsider, barging into a cultural event where I had no right to be. Still, I reasoned, LaLa loved Latin American art and literature. She studied Spanish throughout high school, and had travelled to Mexico and Spain. But what I really wanted was to participate in the ritual of welcoming home the dead. Deep inside, I wanted to believe it could happen, the dead, my daughter, could come home.
At first, I kept the altar idea to myself, imagining a quiet, spiritual communion between me and my daughter. I would build the altar, and friends could come to see.
That plan quickly evaporated. The first on board were a few of LaLa’s close friends, most of whom were art students at local colleges. I invited them to join in the altar making.
Then, early in October, the “quilting bee ladies”, the ones I figured must be tiring of their role as my grief-sitters, hauled me to a camp-out in Yosemite. One night, Becky, main organizer and instigator, plopped down beside me in front of the campfire and asked, “What are we doing on the 30th?” The word “we” took me by surprise. I told her I was building an altar. She asked, “What can we do to help?”
At that moment, my idea of a modest, somewhat traditional Dia de los Muertos altar exploded into something as glorious and unique as Lena and the people who loved her.
First over was Alison, who found a bucket of Pepto-Bismol pink paint in my garage and suggested we use that color for entire altar. Because she is a world-renown artist, I agreed. Later, I realized Alison’s choice was not one of aesthetics, but a tribute to Lena’s spirit.
Next up: LaLa’s friends. Sofia used broken mirror to mosaic the inside of the cabinet. Nora painted the outside with deeply colored waves and swirls that reminded me of the paintings of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Veronika focused on offerings and reliquaries, her most impressive contribution a collection of “LaLa Dolls”. Each doll wore a hand sewn replica of outfits Lena had worn.
Emma brought a book of art from the 1920s, and showed me the ones she liked best. I decoupaged the pictures onto an old sewing table that had belonged to LaLa’s great-grandmother.
My male friends showed up to help. They had been excluded from the quilting bee and other “girls only” gatherings my female friends organized. Bringing lumber and hardware, Ben tackled anything that pertained to structural integrity and power tools. Josh assisted and did some power tool wrangling at the cemetery during set-up. Dorian painted the frames that would hold photos of LaLa and other “muertitos” – friends, family and pets. Lena’s friend Kyle brought his Django Reinhardt skeleton puppet and staged a performance during the event.
The Friday morning before big day, anxiety overwhelmed me. Set up would begin at the cemetery that evening, and the altar seemed unfinished – skeletal. There had been a lull in helpers as people turned to their own lives, trying to get things done so they could help on Saturday – it would be a long day : completing the altar early Saturday morning, and taking it down right after the event. The cemetery required all altars to be removed by 3AM Sunday morning!!
When my friend Jane offered to come over, I eagerly accepted. She expressed skepticism about what she could do, “You know I’m not an artist, right?” I convinced her that if she could squirt glue and throw glitter, she could help. And she did.
As the time to load up and head to the cemetery approached, I got more and more agitated. What if no one showed up? How could I do this on my own? Why did I ever think I could?!? The air cooled in the late afternoon and its brisk chill reminded me of the evening a year ago when I had received news LaLa was dead. I was done. People would understand if I called it off–
And then, a line of cars turned onto my street. Three, maybe four. A calvary of friends, loaded with offerings for the altar.
Dia de los Muertos traditions vary across Mexico, but one account describes how, on the first anniversary of a child’s death, their life is celebrated by honoring the parents. Friends and relatives bring offerings to the family’s home. And so it was with my friends.
Alison and Teresa had gone to the flower market early that morning, purchasing at least one hundred marigolds. Cathy and Julia, teachers at the neighborhood elementary school had enlisted children to string the bright orange flowers into garlands. Cathy’s class made huge tissue paper marigolds. The paper mache skeleton that ended up sitting atop LaLa’s altar arrived with Julia, from an altar she had created in the school library.
Early Saturday morning more friends gathered at the cemetery to do the heavy duty decorating. Katy, Teresa, Merrilyn (bearing snacks), Julia, Karen, Julie, Becky. Ben came along with his future wife, Erin. (Showing incredible stamina, Susie, Merrilyn, Becky, Teresa – and Katy? – also helped bring it down at 1AM Sunday morning.)
Alison arrived that morning with tin skull masks she had made, a dollar store jack-pot of purple and silver sequined sugar skulls - and a hula-hoop.
“What are you going to do with a hula hoop?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, it might come in handy,” she replied.
The hoop, trimmed with the paper flowers Cathy’s class had made, ended up at the top of the altar, the perfect finishing touch.
The day was extraordinary. Friends and strangers pored over the altar and its contents, asking questions, hearing my stories and telling their own, each memory bringing a lost loved one closer to home.
Mimi flew back from college for the weekend. She declared LaLa’s altar beautiful and one of the best she’d seen, which made me feel … content.
When Anayansi Diaz-Cortes recognized the elaborate altars at Hollywood Forever as genuine attempts to honor the dead, I felt relieved. Otherwise, Diaz-Cortes might have seen LaLa’s bright pink altar as a grotesque misrepresentation of a meaningful part of her culture, and nothing could have been further from my intentions.
By the end of my first Day of the Dead, I was wrung out – exhausted, emotionally and physically, but also very grateful. Only during Dia de los Muertos, a party for death and the dead, could I have spent the entire day in the cemetery where my daughter is buried, on the first anniversary of her death, having a good time.
You can see a photo gallery of the altar here.
Video of a parade that lifted my spirits when it passed LaLa’s altar can be viewed here.