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Grieving For Papá, Grieving With Others: My Día De Muertos Diary

When the author's father died suddenly two years ago in Colombia, the Catholic Church mourning rituals offered little comfort. Two weeks ago, by chance in Mexico City for the annual Día De Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, she discovered how these ancient rituals for the departed could finally help her face the pain, and find true peace.

Photo of a boy black-and-white skeleton makeup, in white traditional Mexican clothes, during a Dia de Muertos celebration in Mexico City

Mexico's Día de Muertos, a "magical celebration of death"

Vanessa Sarmiento
Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

In my native country of Colombia, when someone dies, the process of mourning is almost always turned over to the Catholic Church. It starts with the wake, set in aseptic shiny salons, surrounded by dozens of other identical rooms, each family has to welcome people who come to give their respects for days, amid religious symbols and white flower crowns. The lonely rituals are interrupted only by the occasional unrequested words of advice from friends or clergy about the right way to mourn.

For my first 22 years, I'd observed all of this with mild irritation from a distance at the few wakes and funerals I'd attended. Then, one Easter week, the family crying desperately in the center of the cold room was my own.

I lost my dad, who was a perfectly healthy recently retired physical education teacher, to a cardiorespiratory stroke while he was sleeping. He was just 65.

Overshadowed by religious rituals

My foggy memory from those horrid days included comments from supposed well-wishers like "Stop crying, God knows what he's doing," "It was God's will" or "maybe God is trying to teach you something." The misplaced advice made me feel isolated and lost. Since I was young, I had no longer considered myself a Catholic; but even more so I wanted desperately for my dad to be the center of his own funeral, and did what I could by placing photos over the cold brown coffin, playing his favorite songs while he was lowered in his grave, and sharing a song my brother and I wrote on his online memorial.

I never imagined grief could feel so lonely when you are a non-religious person in a Catholic country like Colombia. Even the flower crowns and visits from friends were overshadowed by the religious emphasis and obligations, such as praying nine nights in a row and repeatedly being encouraged to cross myself. They were demands of a religion I didn't want to be part of, with the unspoken message that this was the only possible guidance on how to grieve for my dad.

Photo of Cempas\u00fachil flowers decorating a graveyard in Mexico City during Dia de Muertos celebrations

Graveyard decorated with Cempasúchil flowers in Mexico City on Día de Muertos

Vanessa Sarmiento

A shot of memory, breaking grief taboo

Fast forward two and a half years to the final week of October 2021. I'd arrived in Mexico City for a Latin American journalism conference, and after landing realized my visit happened to coincide with Día de Muertos. These "Day of the Dead" festivities are celebrated between October 30 and November 2, in which Mexicans welcome with an altar their deceased loved ones whom they believe come to visit the living on these dates each year. In this festivity of Aztec origins, Catholic rituals of popular tradition intertwine, a smooth syncretizing of cultures and faiths.

Candles smoothly twinkled over a small table while yellow petals framed the photographs of loved ones.

I'd heard of Día de Muertos, and from a distance, it had seemed colorful and attractive, and the movie Coco had given a fascinating glimpse of how its fantastic visuals and music could create a magical celebration of death. Still, this was the first time I'd experienced it myself, and still facing the unresolved grieving for my father.

I arrived for the first Halloween parties, just a few days before Día de Muertos. Between Tamarindo Smirnoff's sweetly-spicy burning flavor, young Mexicans started telling the stories of their deceased in front of the host's altar. Candles smoothly twinkled over a small table while yellow petals framed the photographs of loved ones. A small cross above and a tequila bottle, of the favorite brand of the deceased, lay on the table. One by one, the friends each shared memories of a relative they'd lost including a high school friend that had died in a car accident.

The combination of joy and death had always seemed so alien to me, yet at that party I felt it for the very first time. Mexican journalist and friend Paul Antoine Matos gave me his first book, Embellecedores de Huesos ("Beautifiers of Bones") in which he narrates the unique custom of Pomuch town citizens of cleaning their deceased bones year by year to somehow bring them back. One of the locals of Pomuch said to him "The environment during these days is festive and joyful, because you feel that your family is by your side." I felt the warm and slightly overwhelming reality of being part of a huge group of people all grieving someone at the same time. It is an intense throat-tightening cocktail of emotions that I can only describe as a national hug.

It was so far from the awkward silences I knew back at home when someone asked about my parents, and I had to answer that my papá passed away. Far from the heavy religious judgment when people assumed I was angry at God because my dad had died. Here I was listening to people my age remembering and honoring the memory of those they lost while having some shots to definitively break the taboos I'd been surrounded by since losing my father.

A city of grief, joy, memory and resistance

The tall buildings and old houses of the busy metropolis of Mexico City during this time of the year are colored yellow and lilac. The orange-toned flower represents life and the sun, and the purple refers to loss and mourning. Both are Cempasúchil, the flower of the dead according to the Aztecs, as it's thought that its petals are able to keep the heat of the sun and shelter the dead while their aroma guides their soul's return.

The altars are everywhere, from museums to bars. One of the first ones I saw was in The Museum of Memory and Tolerance, where the message "phobias that kill, the colors of grief" was displayed by the Pride flag. Then I visited the massive altar in the center of Coyoacán in which, under the big bell of the central plaza, candles, skulls, flowers and photographs shared the space with messages for femicide victims "not even one more killed," for migrants "for all those that died trying to cross our borders" and for journalists "for the journalists that have died reporting."

My mind was transported to my homeland, 1,900 miles to the south. I cried, sheltered by the loud masses and the dim lights of the altar. Colombia, a country where defending human rights represents a mortal danger and more than 1,200 social activists have been killed after believing in a badly implemented peace treaty in 2016. Mexico has its own plagues, like currently being the country where more journalists are killed in the world. Though not for a direct loved one, my grief was irrepressible.

Photo of Mexican "Catrinas" carrying pink crosses during a silent procession in memory of the victims of femicide, on the D\u00eda de Muertos in Saltillo, Mexico. 02 November 2021.

"Catrinas" participate in a silent procession in memory of the victims of femicide, on the Día de Muertos in Saltillo, Mexico. 02 November 2021.

Miguel Sierra/EFE/ZUMA

Mexico and Colombia, a shared history

Mexico and Colombia share a history of colonization, massacres and social mobilization. Two countries that lead the rates of environmental and human rights defenders killings. Two countries where gender-based violence is a pandemic. In Colombia, in 2019, every day 95 girls denounced sexual violence. In Mexico from January to May 2021, there have been 423 femicides. I cried for them, I cried from a deeply engrained grief I knew I had but never before came pouring out. A peacefulness and solemnity I didn't know could come with grief.

I was transported to 2016 when I marched for peace in Colombia with my dad. We all had so much hope in the treaties that were being negotiated. We all deserved a different country. My dad taught me to doubt politicians, to truly care about the well-being of others, to give generously, and listen patiently, even if the world is not always kind in return. I remember the Club Colombia beer he drank with lunch and the way he silently cried sometimes when music invaded him, regardless of the genre. He was a sensitive and curious soul. In love with this world and always teaching me about it. I wish we had walked between the trees of Mexico City together. I wish I didn't have to write this piece.

I dried my tears and kept exploring the packed streets of Frida Kahlo's neighborhood, slightly terrified by the people with Pennywise and Chucky costumes. It was fascinating to see Mexicans and tourists of all ages impersonating superheroes, witches and catrinas. The omnipresent skeleton representation of a woman is the death that comes to visit. It is a symbol with origins in a reinterpretation of the Aztecs Goddess of death by José Guadalupe Posada, who wanted to communicate with the satirical attire that no matter how rich or poor you are, we will all end up as skeletons.

Gratitude and sharing

Ecuadorian, Guatemalan and Colombian journalists, as well as other Latinxs, we all felt so lucky to have experienced a conference in Mexico city on these particular dates. We even participated in the rituals that showcased the exceptional relationship that Mexicans have with death. On our last day together, one of the Mexican delegates at the conference offered to share his altar with those of us who had lost someone.

During the conference, we got the news a dear journalist for all of us had suddenly lost her boyfriend. She was not able to travel to Mexico, but we all felt her close to our hearts. Even if she was back in Venezuela, we put her boyfriend's photo on the altar. It shared the place of honor with a picture of my dad, who died two-and-a-half years ago; with the photo of my Ecuadorian friend's mama, who left nine years ago, with the drawings of my Colombian friend's papá and best friend, each departed just a few months ago.

In the land of death and the Día de Muertos celebration, there is no place for hierarchies or differences in the right to grieve depending on how old or recent your loss is. In Colombia, the masses to commemorate my papá's death become less frequent with time, and the only thing mentioned now is his name.

The possibility to return to the world of the living, to reunite with our people, to resurrect...

That 30th of October on a white Altar with a few candles, our missed ones shared a mezcal bottle and the Yucatan region Pibipollo, tamale-like chicken pastry, cooked in a hole under the earth, "a metaphor of burial" as my friend Matos described it. Mexico was hosting our Latin American ancestors for a feast on a celebration where the bridge stands between life and death, a bridge called remembrance, as the song in Coco successfully imprinted on us.

Hugging, and letting out tears of happy nostalgia, we remembered their favorite songs, their happiest moments, their favorite outfits and even their very human defects. We felt embraced both by them and by each other. Mexico was giving me a sense of collective grief and accompaniment I never imagined possible. Mexico was healing a part of my heart that was angry at the world for not listening to my desperate scream for community and empathy. Grief acquired a surprising new taste of gratitude.

"It is a beautiful gesture of gratitude that the Mexicans have towards those who have gone before us. From them, we inherit the land, culture, education and life" fellow Colombian Julián de Zubiría Samper wrote in a recent article in El Espectador about Día de Muertos. "What this millenary custom shows us is that we have to thank those who gave us life and speak again with those who left sooner than expected."

Connection beyond religion

I remember one of my worst memories of grieving back at home when a priest gave a eulogy centered on my father's duty to repent and accompany a God he didn't really adore. Now, instead, this ancient Mexican rite was giving my dad a singular place of importance, not that of a priest's pawn or a subject of God.

"The Day of the Dead is the possibility that we all have to return to the world of the living, to reunite with our people, to resurrect," Matos wrote in his recent book. Despite being a Catholic country as well, the eclecticism of its beautiful syncretic traditions rooted in precolonial cosmovisions was allowing my dad to come back for something like a real-life chat with me as we shared a few Mezcales and a shot of tequila (though I know he'd prefer a beer!).

I don't know if something inside has healed permanently or if it was more like a breath of fresh air before going back to feeling the same isolation when I return to Bogotà. What I do have now is a place where I can sit once a year and feel closer to the signs Papá keeps sending me. I'm not sure in which city, but from now on my dad will always have an altar he can come to visit. Who knows, we might get to share his favorite Colombian beer next time.

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