Tag Archives: Oaxaca

The Pacification

19 Apr

 

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My son, Nino is graduating from University of California Santa Barbara this coming June. He is an art major who specializes in printmaking. This week he’s having a solo art show at UCSB’s Glass Box Gallery entitled “The Pacification” which explores his relationship with his father. Since many of you won’t be able to attend, I thought I’d share some of his work on my blog.

I’m so proud of Nino for following his passion. He started U.C.S.B. as an Economics/Accounting Major and I knew this was not the path he should have chosen. Luckily, he realized that creating art is what makes him happy and changed his major. In July he’ll be off to live in Oaxaca for sixth months where he will continue to study printmaking.

Here is the explanation behind this show and some examples of his work:

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The artist, Nino Mireles

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Our Home Away from Home

28 Jul

oax 16Our family just returned from a two-week vacation in Oaxaca, Mexcio. We had a wonderful time lounging on the beach, eating the most delicious food, visiting with family and traveling up to my husband’s isolated hometown in the mountains.

Much of the novel I’m writing (which I swear to you is almost finished!) takes place in Oaxaca so it was wonderful to travel there and research even more ideas and descriptions for the book. It is truly a magical place.

The Oaxacan people are some of the most interesting, kind and generous people in the world. Someday, we hope to build a vacation home there. Ah, it’s good to have dreams…

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This is the main church in Yalalag, my husband’s hometown.

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While we were in Yalalag, we attended a wedding. This is the bride, Melina who is wearing the traditional wedding outfit of Yalalag.

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I thought this was interesting because the little girl is tied to the back of her mother with a traditional Mexicanl “rebozo” and yet the little girls is wearing sparkly gold shoes instead of huaraches.

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This is an old photograph hanging in the municipal building in Yalalag. It was taken in 1936 and shows a family standing in front of their home wearing traditional clothing. Not much has changed in 75 years (except that the town now has internet!)

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You can’t go to Oaxaca without eating Mole Negro. Delicioso!

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A painting of La Virgencita in one of the churches.

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Oaxacan chocolate is to die for!

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The fresh produce in the marketplace smells wonderful!

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen any building painted this shade of cobalt blue before!

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Dried chilies for sale in the marketplace.

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My absolute favorite Oaxacan treat: Rose flavored sorbet!

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Another stunning doorway in downtown Oaxaca.

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The inside of the Church of Santo Domingo. Awe-inspiring.

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One of the many meals served over the course of the weekend for the wedding. First the men would all sit down and be served by the women, and then the women would sit and be served by the men.

Done Dabbling

26 Jul

writing studyA few years back, someone asked me if I thought I’d ever write a novel some day. My first reaction was to laugh. At that time, I had just recently delved back into writing after a twenty-five year hiatus of not writing a single word (actually, hiatus sounds like I was once a prolific writer—I wasn’t—the best word to describe my attempts at writing in college would be that I “dabbled.”)  Sure, writing short essays and a blog post now and then was feasible—but a novel? I couldn’t even fathom writing something that extensive.

I’m not ashamed to admit that my childhood dream was always to become a writer—I thought about it incessantly for years. I loved books so much—the smell of them; the texture of the paper between my fingertips; the way the words jumped out at me from the page; how I could easily lose myself in a story and experience someone’s life other than my own even if it was just for a short time. The library was my home away from home.

Being somewhat of an introvert, the solitary life of a writer has always appealed to me. As a young girl I created this elaborate fantasy in which I envisioned myself writing my literary masterpiece while tucked away in a cozy study with soft lighting and wall to wall bookshelves. While sitting quiet and alone at an antique desk, I would sip hot tea with honey while a blazing fire crackled in the fireplace. When I needed inspiration, I would glance up and look out through the French Doors onto my picturesque English garden where my flowers somehow managed to bloom year round. Oh—I almost forgot—in my fantasy there was always a gentle rain falling outside.english garden

That perfect fantasy never really got off the ground—with a husband, four kids, four dogs and my mother, I’m never alone. I don’t have French Doors, I live in Southern California where it rarely rains and it’s usually too hot outside to light a fire in the fireplace. I prefer Starbucks coffee to hot tea and rarely go to the library anymore because I always forget to return the books and before I know it I’ve racked up over fifty dollars worth of late fees. I read most of my books on my Kindle and I don’t have an antique desk.  I do my best writing while sitting on the couch.

But get this: I’m thirty-three chapters and almost 70,000 words into my first novel. BAM!  That’s right—I am fifty two years old and for the first time in my life I’m doing what I always dreamed of doing—I am writing a novel.

Now, who knows? My novel may very well turn out to be trite, sentimental and cliché, but then again, it might turn out to be a really great read with a real plot and interesting and lovable characters. We’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I’m carving out a little time every day in my busy schedule to sit down on my couch and get a paragraph or two written down, which more often than not gets deleted the following day (I mean, who in their right mind would write such crap?) No matter—one good sentence at a time and somehow the job gets done. And I’m having the time of my life.

Who needs fire, tea and rain to write a book? Not me.

This girl is done dabbling.

 

If  you’re interested, here’s the synopsis of my novel (still untitled)

After a devastating accident permanently injured the fingers of her right hand and ended her promising career as a concert pianist, thirty-six year old Camille Childs has lived a sheltered and lonely existence teaching piano lessons out of the guest house behind her mother’s lavish Santa Barbara estate. After ten years of teaching piano to Graciela, the very talented daughter of the Mexican housekeeper, Camille finally has the opportunity to validate her teaching expertise after Graciela wins a prestigious piano competition and is about to be presented in her own solo debut recital. Not only will this recital help launch Graciela’s own career as a concert pianist, but it will also help Camille build her reputation as a master teacher and bring her the recognition and acclaim she feels she deserves.

Three weeks before the grand debut recital, Graciela suddenly disappears and Camille learns that she has left the country for her mother’s isolated village in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. Against the wishes of her own controlling and alcoholic mother, Camille travels alone to Oaxaca to search for Graciela and bring her back home in time for the concert. There, during a monsoonal thunderstorm, Camille almost loses her life in a terrible bus accident, but at the last minute is saved by Alejandro, a handsome indigenous Zapotec originally from the same village as Graciela.

Despite a contentious first meeting with the spoiled and self-centered Camille, Alejandro befriends her and helps her navigate the mountainous terrain and unfamiliar culture of the Zapotec town of Yalálag, Oaxaca. With Alejandro’s help, Camille embarks on a journey of self-discovery that will change how she views the world as well as herself.

Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, Oaxaca. This is where much of the novel takes place.

Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, Oaxaca. This is where much of the novel takes place.

Remembering Grandpa

20 Oct

muertos 4The other day, my eight year-old daughter, Isa said something that stuck with me: “Mommy,” she said, “Isn’t it sad that I’m not used to saying the word Grandpa?”

It’s very sad, indeed. Isa has never had a grandfather, as René’s father and my father both died before she was born. My father has been gone for almost thirty years now and it seems as if I think of him more often as I grow older myself. It’s become a regular occurrence that his memory comes to me when I’m reading or writing and I don’t know the meaning of a particular word. I think to myself, Oh, if only Dad were here—I could ask him—because when I was a young girl, every single time I needed to know what a word meant, he always knew.

My dad still shows up in my dreams sometimes. I’m the first to admit that because of his alcoholism, I’ve carried the weight of a heavy resentment toward him for many years. But now in my dreams, I’m no longer the victimized and martyred little girl as I used to be. I’m just a daughter who’s over the moon to see her daddy again. And as if I’m still half his height, I stretch my arms up high to hug him, the soft cotton material of his Brooks Brothers button up shirt brushing against my skin. I bury my face into his neck, the scent of nicotine and Old Spice coming off of him like a stale and comforting perfume. I always ask him the same question: “Where have you been all this time?”

Lately, I think of my dad every time I walk through the living room. It’s that time of year again when we set up our altar for Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead, and his photograph is the focal point of our altar. He’s surrounded by skulls, candles, marigolds, pan de muerto, and most importantly, by the smiling faces of other relatives and friends who have also left this earth.

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I think he would be surprised by the number of faces placed next to his: his two younger brothers; his granddaughter, Gillian; the many faces of Isa’s young friends who’ve all died from cancer. He might be a little bit pleased that on this altar he’s still the patriarch—the grandpa watching over them all—a part of something that we who are still here on this earth have yet to understand.

It feels good to remember that in more ways than not, my dad was a decent man. He was flawed, as I am, but he did the best he knew how to do, just as I’m doing the best I know how to do. And despite his imperfections as a father, he must have done a few things right along the way.

After all, I turned out pretty good.

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The Other Direction

12 Jul

cancun sunriseAs I approach my fifty-first birthday, it crossed my mind that I’m now heading in that “other” direction—you know, the one where we picture ourselves at the top of the mountain, standing tall and strong, basking in the knowledge that we finally got there. And then we think: Well, that’s it then. I made it. From here on out, it’s just slip-sliding all the way back down to the bottom.

I understand that this is a ridiculous notion on my part because for me, life has really just begun at the halfway mark. This past year has been the best year of my life, and just keeps getting better all the time. I’m happier than I ever was at age thirty-five, or twenty-one, or even sixteen. I’ve finally let go of the notion that I have to prove to the world that I’m good enough, and I’ve got to say it’s quite liberating! I finally like being me.

The very best part of aging is that I’m wise enough to realize that we’re all basically the same. It turns out that the woman sitting next to me at the dinner party (whom I used to worry was smarter, funnier and better dressed than I was) was actually thinking the same things about me (well, maybe not the better dressed part.) It’s just a fact that no matter how much money each of us has in our checking account, or what type of car we drive, or where our children attend college (or don’t), inside our minds and hearts we are often scared and vulnerable and too terrified to admit it. Now that I get this about people, I just love them so much more.

The other good thing about heading in that other direction is that I value my moments so much more now. It used to be that washing the dishes and folding the laundry took precedence over getting down on the living room rug to play with my young children. I live five minutes from the beach, but it used to be that I wouldn’t swim in the ocean because my body was too fat or my skin too fair. I didn’t want to get sunburned or track sand into the house or have to be bothered with cleaning the tar from my feet. I’ll go to the beach when the house is clean, or after the grocery shopping, or when I lose twenty pounds….

I had it all wrong. In my attempt to try to control my environment I denied myself the little pleasures in life. I see now that I only wasted precious time! How did I not notice the whisper of a cool evening breeze after a sultry day, or the fresh scent of sheets just pulled from the dryer? Why did I worry so much about how many calories were in that slice of peach pie that I didn’t take the time to savor the sweetness of each delicious bite?

church in Oaxaca

A few weeks ago I returned from a trip with my family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and I can truly say that it was the best vacation of my life. It’s not that I hadn’t been to Mexico before—over the years we’ve been several times to visit my husband’s family. But it used to be that after only a week there, I was more than ready to come home. There were too many bugs, or it was too humid, or the poverty made me uncomfortable. I had a whole list of excuses for not wanting to be there.

hammockThis time though, I allowed myself to just let go and find the beauty in every moment. I didn’t worry about getting sick from the water, or getting stranded in the mountains on the way to my husband’s village. I put on a bathing suit, slathered on the sunscreen, and even though my thighs jiggled and I was the whitest person on the beach, I didn’t care! I visited ruins, went snorkeling with my kids, and ate fried bananas while swinging in a hammock. I walked the cobblestoned streets of downtown Oaxaca City with my husband’s family and spoke a ton of Spanish. I ate mole negro and handmade tortillas every chance I got and I spent more money than I should have. I thoroughly enjoyed my husband and my children. I laughed more often than not.under the umbrella

I lived.

 

So it may very well be true that I’m now headed down the mountain in that other direction— the very one I spent so many years trying to climb up, but hey—I’m just fine with that—going down is so much more fun. And I’m kind of tired after all those years of struggling.

Besides, it’s always so much easier going back down, and the view is spectacular.view of Yalalag

Burning Up

18 Oct

Yesterday there was a huge plume of smoke coming from the mountains in front of my house. It’s that dry time of year when the parched hills have again erupted in flames, but that’s about the only thing around here that’s been on fire. I may be sweaty, tired and hot–but I’m certainly not on fire.  I’m completely unmotivated, and I need a change. It’s October, for goodness sake, and summer should be long gone. The days are supposed to be crisp and refreshing by now, and this eighty-plus degree weather around here has done nothing except remind me that California is indeed a desert.

Not only has the sweltering heat increased the fire danger, I also think it’s affected my ability to write. Lately, all of my interesting ideas have simply evaporated.  My brain feels as mushy as a ripe peach that’s been left in a hot car with the windows rolled up—there’s a good chance that it may explode into a sticky, fermented mess at any moment.

Each morning I sit at the computer and brood over what to write, yet I’m as dry as a sandy creek bed.  Even though I wake up energized with unqualified intention to get something written down, the few sentences I do manage to write are unimaginative. Nothing is flowing. I finally get to the point where complete despair sets in and I want to give up. Why bother? I tell myself. Then I start to avoid writing entirely.

I’m at expert when it comes to avoiding writing: I read. I clean. I do laundry. I work. I’m very good at pretending to be busy with the little details of my life. This week, I avoided writing by spending time pouring over cookbooks and turned out several fabulous meals for my family using the slow cooker. My husband was in was in total heaven as I recreated the dishes of his childhood in Oaxaca: Caldo de arrez, Pollo en mole verde, and Abondigas soup. He was happy, the kids were happy, and so was I–at least for a few days, but now I find I’m already bored with this whole cooking thing.

It’s such a conundrum. When I’m not writing, I’m often unhappy because I miss it.  When I am writing, I’m often unhappy because I feel that it’s not up to par.

Savory Albondigas (Meatball soup)

It’s difficult for me to let go of the idea that I always have to be so productive with my writing. The fundamental urge to prove myself is as stifling as the hot winds that fanned the flames on the mountain yesterday. I should just give myself a break for once and not force the process; I need to learn to let it just happen when it’s supposed to happen. As I tell the kids: The soup will be ready when it’s ready.

Like that dry chaparral on the hillsides, I must wait for the perfect conditions to be present; only then it will be my turn to explode into a burst of energy and motivation.  When the time is right, the words will again flow out of me like wildfire and there will be no stopping me.

And if that doesn’t happen, I can always take up knitting.

(By the way, the fire is finally out, and the forecast this weekend is for cooler temperatures, so you may very well be hearing from me again soon…)

Cafe con Leche

25 Jun

My husband leaves me every year—sometimes twice. He packs his bag, kisses me and our children goodbye and heads back to Mexico to see his other family—the one I stole him away from over twenty five years ago.

When he first leaves me, I breathe a sigh of relief because I am free. I can stay up late watching television with the volume on high. I can spend hours on Facebook without him complaining how I’m ridiculously addicted to social media. I can sleep in late and skip breakfast and eat grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles everyday for lunch. I can bake scones and give them away so as not to eat any (okay, I eat some.) I can work in my garden for hours knowing that no one is going to call out to me and ask me to do something or go somewhere. I can send my youngest daughter over to play at a neighbor’s house and then I can savor my aloneness like a hot Grande Decaf Mocha (one and a half pumps of chocolate, extra whip) with a morning bun on the side, and no one gives me a look that says: Should you really be eating that?

For about three days my new sense of freedom makes me as giddy and excited as a teenager whose parents have left for the weekend. I make plans to clean out closets, scrub baseboards, and organize my messy life into neat little plastic containers. I drool over the stack of books on my nightstand and ponder which one I’m going to read first. I make detailed lists and compose emails and decide to use every hour—no—every minute, to accomplish what I’ve mapped out to do.

And then something strange happens. I end up sitting on the couch doing nothing. My stress level has gone all the way down to zero but for some reason I’m not happy.

I miss my husband.

My problem is that I really like to spend time with my husband. Or at least I do in reasonable quantities. Even though he readily admits to me that he’s high maintenance and difficult at times, his sense of humor, his generosity, and his ability to love is unparalleled. I’ve discovered that I like to hang out with people who have these qualities, even if they drive me nuts at times.

Not only that, he makes me laugh. I cannot stay mad at him for longer than fifteen minutes because he always tries to hug me and kiss me and cajole me out of my snit by teasing me until I finally have to cover my mouth to stifle my laughter. No matter what hurtful things we’ve just said to each other (and both of us are expert button pushers), the moment I crack that smile, he knows that everything is instantly forgiven. Trust me—I’ve tried in vain to hold on to that hot, delicious anger—it’s virtually impossible with Rene.

On June fourth we celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. As money has been a bit tight this year (join the club, right?) we didn’t make plans to go away to spend a weekend in wine country or take a short cruise to Baja. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything anyway—we’ve always been sort of casual about giving each other presents.

But he surprised me the morning of our anniversary by playing hooky from work and bringing me peach colored roses (he actually remembered that peach was the color of our wedding flowers) and then he took me out to a fancy restaurant on State Street to eat French toast with fresh berries and whipped cream.

He held my hand and kissed me, just like he did during our first date, which involved the two of us making out passionately in a seedy movie theatre somewhere in downtown Los Angeles while a Chuck Norris film (dubbed in Spanish) blasted out at an unusually high volume.

In that dark theatre, Rene kissed me liked I’d never been kissed before, so completely paralyzing my body that I literally melted into the squeaky seat and could not move.  I barely heard the screaming  children who ran up and down the aisles throwing popcorn and crying out for their mothers.

Rene and I met at an upscale gourmet hamburger joint in Santa Monica (I guarantee you, there was such a thing in the 80’s) where he was a cook and I was a waitress.  He spoke mostly Spanish and I spoke mostly English. He was a dark-skinned Zapotec Indian from the mountains of Oaxaca whose first language was an indigenous dialect, and who at eight years old, was sent away to work as a houseboy in the home of a rich family in the city. I grew up a semi-privileged white girl from Santa Barbara, California, who had her own room and her own car (it was a beat-up 67 Oldsmobile, aka the Tuna Boat, but a car, nonetheless) and whose parents paid for weekly piano lessons.

Rene worked tirelessly for years, often sending his entire paycheck to his parents in Mexico so that they and his nine siblings could have a real roof over their heads, one that wasn’t made from scraps of discarded wood and corrugated aluminum. While I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in piano performance from a prestigious Los Angeles music school, he was riding the bus for an hour each way to attend ESL classes so that he could to learn English and begin his education. Seven years later, when he was thirty-one years old, he received his master’s degree in Education. At that time, I was seven months pregnant with our third child.

My husband and I are like night and day—we’re café con leche. We come from dissimilar cultures and we don’t like the same music. We’ve had some difficult times in our marriage; the most arduous being the time our youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia when she was two. But through some kind of consecrated grace, we pulled together instead of pulling apart, and we endured. Yes, we still fight a lot, and yes, we say mean things to each other at times. Yet we also say “I love you” every single day, no matter what.

And most importantly, we laugh a lot.

I didn’t plan to fall in love with Rene after only dating him for three weeks, after which he told me he was leaving me to go back to Mexico and didn’t know when he would be back. I was heartbroken and had no idea if I’d ever see him again, but somehow I knew he was the one, and that whatever happened was meant to be.

Together in 1985. The hairstyle proves it.

He came back four months later.

I was twenty-three when he left me for the first time. He’s been leaving me without fail ever since. This time around, he’s only been gone a little over two weeks. Last night he called, the connection scratchy and faint, and told me he missed me and the kids and he was coming home early. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait too long this time.

Still together after twenty five years of marriage.

The Feast

26 Oct

The meal is almost ready. The white tablecloth has been laid on the table, its hand-embroidered flowers against the white background like a snowy meadow of red poppies. Colorfully painted vases that have been placed on the table spill over with bright orange and yellow marigolds, accompanied by tall stalks of scarlet gladiolas which hover at both ends like skinny old women reaching out their long arms in welcome. The piquant aroma of the marigolds combined with the lingering scent of burning incense creates an atmosphere of magic and anticipation in the dark room. Candlelight dances across the faces of the guests, who sit still and quiet in the darkness, their expressions never changing.

All over the table, the abundance of food is evident: bread that has been baked in the shape of corpses lies in plentiful heaps next to the steaming tamales in their tightly-wrapped corn husks. Candy and ripe fruit mingle with the tiny toys and trinkets that have been left on the table to please the children: a toy truck for a young boy, a favorite black-haired doll for a girl of six.

This room should be filled with excited chatter in anticipation of this spectacular meal, yet not one guest utters a word; each one of them waits patiently in silence, staring off into the candlelight. There is a feeling of time slowing down—a sense that no one is going anywhere— that there is no need to hurry.

On this night, despite the festive preparations, there will be no eating and drinking at this table, because in reality, all of our guests are only familiar faces captured in photographs; some smiling, some somber, but all of them are gone forever.

All of our guests are dead.

After all, tonight’s celebration is not really meant for them, but for us—for the family and friends who knew them and loved them and planned this elaborate celebration in order to remember them.

Tonight is the offering. It is “Dia de los Muertos”.

The Mireles Family Altar

As a child, the idea of death confused me, because I really knew nothing about the process of death or the act of mourning. I understood that people died, but my parents, probably in their attempt to protect me, didn’t talk about it, or softened its meaning by referring to it as passing away or moving on. In my child’s mind, I saw these dead relatives passing away as if they were swooping off into outer space like in a cartoon. No one talked to me about what happens when you die. I never once saw a dead body; I never attended a funeral or memorial service, and I never even cried over the loss of someone dear to me—even after my own grandparents died I truly felt no sense of real loss. Death was just some abstract concept that I was never able to understand.

When I was in college, my father, only a few years older than I am now, died suddenly from pneumonia. I wasn’t able to grieve thoroughly and deeply after his death, because real mourning had never been modeled for me. Our family handled his death without fanfare. We had a simple gathering of friends at our home, but there was no memorial service, no funeral, no music played, and no words spoken aloud of who my dad was and what he meant to all of us. Not being able to grieve his death openly with friends and family left an emotional vacancy in my heart and later manifested in a long period of depression and suffering for me. I had lost someone so close to me, yet there was no real goodbye.

Shortly after my father died, I met and later married my husband, Rene, who is an indigenous Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, Mexico. Throughout his life, Rene had been taught to accept the experience of death as a normal occurrence—something that was a natural part of life. Nothing about death was ever covered up for him, and so he was able to teach me that death is not something to keep quiet about, but quite the contrary—it’s a chance to talk, cry, rage, and even laugh about —but mainly, he helped me understand that it’s perfectly natural to feel the emotions associated with losing someone close to you.

Rene comes from a culture where death is not feared, but is considered an important and revered part of life. When someone dies in Rene’s hometown, the prayer vigil lasts for nine days. The corpse, in traditional dress, is laid out at home on the dining room table for everyone to touch and kiss goodbye. This is followed by a funeral procession where mourners walk alongside the pallbearers who carry the casket on their shoulders to the church. The traditional brass band plays somber music as the people cry and wail. Everyone helps out to cook and feed the large crowds that gather, and prayers are said for the dead throughout the night. Tears are shed openly; stories are told about the deceased, and most importantly, emotions are displayed without shame or misgivings.

And it’s not just when someone dies that death is revered. It’s celebrated yearly on “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) with much celebration beginning on November first (All Saints Day).

A cemetery in Mexico on Dia de los Muertos

All over Mexico and Latin America altars are constructed displaying photographs of the deceased, fresh flowers, food and gifts for “La Ofrenda” (the offering). Whimsical skeletons and skulls made of sugar are placed on the altar in order to make death seem humorous and less tragic. People actually go to the cemetery, their arms laden with marigolds and candles to spend the night and pray for their dead family members, encouraging the souls of the dead to visit. It’s a beautiful and moving tradition, but it’s one that I really hadn’t embraced until a great tragedy hit my own family.

The first time Rene suggested that we have an altar in our home was after my brother’s daughter, Gillian died after choking on a hotdog. Gillian was only six years old, and her unexpected death left me inconsolable. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to really experience the grief and despair that comes from the death of a loved one.

Gillian's photo, with one of her dolls beneath her.

Gillian’s death was a sudden, heart-wrenching loss—one that I never imagined I’d be able to face, but I had to. At times, seeing my brother and his wife suffer was unbearable, but having Gillian’s photograph on our altar helped me work through some of the pain and grief that I needed to express. The process of celebrating her on the altar helped me understand that through her death, she gave me a precious gift—the realization that I could let go of my own inflexibility and self-righteous behavior toward my brother, and try to repair our strained relationship. Ultimately, Gillian’s offering was successful—my brother and I are now closer than we’ve ever been.

Death has touched our family many more times since my daughter Isa was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago. The sad truth is that children with cancer sometimes die. When Isa was first admitted into the hospital, we became friends with Erika and Jeff Zamora, whose son Jeffrey was in the room down the hall from us, battling another form of leukemia. Isa and Jeffrey were around the same age and they became playmates. I would often run into Erika at the clinic when both children were receiving treatment at the same time and Jeffrey and Isa would be so happy to see each other.

A clear memory I carry in my mind is a time when our kids spent the afternoon in the same hospital room receiving blood and platelet transfusions. You’d think that with two kids so sick they needed transfusions, this would be a somber affair, but Jeff and Erika brought Mexican food along to share and our room became “party central.” Jeffrey and Isa happily played and watched cartoons while Jeff’s wild sense of humor kept us all in hysterics. Our boisterous laughter soon brought all of the pediatric nurses to our room to join in the fun. It was a joyful afternoon.

Jeffrey died a few months later. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t make it—so many people were praying for his recovery—and I truly believed in my heart that he would live.

After his leukemia relapsed, he had been scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant as soon as the doctors could get him into remission again, but his little heart couldn’t handle the stronger chemo and he went into cardiac arrest. Imprinted like a video clip in my mind, I will never forget walking into the ICU, overflowing with family and friends of the Zamoras, and seeing Erika, unable to conceal the devastation and sorrow in her face as she held Jeffrey’s tiny body in her arms.

A smiling Jeffrey Zamora on our altar

Jeffrey’s sweet smile now looks out at us from our altar, a red toy fire engine placed under his photograph. He joins the other guests: Rene’s parents, my grandparents, my two uncles, and of course, Gillian. My father’s photograph is in the center.

For years now, I’ve carried the burden of resentment in my heart toward my dad and how his struggle with alcoholism affected me as a child. The altar is a chance for me to let those feelings go; a chance to remember and embrace all that was wonderful about my dad—that the reason we live in this beautiful home is largely due to his life’s work.

My daughter, Nora making paper flowers for the altar

Celebrating Dia de los Muertos offers me chance to be appreciative for everything I have and to understand that life sometimes offers bad experiences, and it’s all right to be sad and it’s all right to cry. It’s also all right to remember and laugh about the good times, too. We just have to accept that death is unavoidable and that’s why it’s crucial to take the time to live every moment to the fullest.

Quietly staring at the altar, as I look at the faces of those who are no longer here with us, and although I feel a bit sad, I also feel peaceful. But what I feel most is supremely thankful that I am one of the lucky ones—that Isa is alive and well, and that her photograph is not up there on the altar next to Jeffrey and Gillian.

Through some miracle of the universe, or most likely the loving grace of God, Isa is right here with me and Rene and my other  beautiful children as we gather around the altar to remember our family and friends and to cry and to laugh. Hopefully, our children will continue this tradition with their own families someday.

For now, this is the moment: the table is laid; the celebration begins. We tell our stories and Isa smiles up at Jeffrey and Gillian as the candlelight dances in her eyes.