Remembering "Day of the Dead" Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

October 31, 2021
Adan Griego
Photo of Cemetery of the salt mining Rica Aventura, María Elena, Chile

We lived in a farming community in the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, not far from the Rio Grande, as it appeared in U.S. maps. In first grade, at the Escuela Rural Federal Primero de Mayo, we would learn it as Río Bravo del Norte. The towns of Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario, on the other side of the River, were familiar names from the many relatives who would visit us on weekends. One year they donated electric blankets, never mind that we had no electricity!

I was probably five years old the first time we went to the cemetery on Dia de los Muertos. It was the day before my birthday. A few weeks earlier my mother had ordered two coronas de muerto from one of the neighbors. With her versatile talent, she could just as easily prepare a quinceañera outfit or create elaborate wreaths for the dead.  

The day we picked up the two paper mache, hand-made coronas I could not contain myself at the sight of such ornate and colorful wreaths, ever so tempting to touch all that gold and silver stuff. My mother finally consented when I asked if I could, but she made it very clear: it needed to be done with care so the colorful glitter and many other shiny adornments would not fall off. The coronas were special gifts for my paternal grandparents: Miguel and Mariana.

La abuela Mariana died a few weeks after I was born and I always felt like I knew her. “She held you in her arms,” my mother would remind me time after time. Many years later I found out they had stopped talking to each other by the time I was born. Probably a typical in-law disagreement for which the real reason gets more nebulous as time goes by. Yet, my mother avoided any negative remarks for the woman whose big picture kept watch over us in the room where we slept.

The much-anticipated cemetery excursion was on November 2nd, the previous day was to honor those who had died very young. I would learn in catechism classes that those angelitos needed my prayers so they could continue their journey to heaven. There were probably other similar stories invented by my mother to keep me focused on cleaning around the graves of my grandparents.

“What was the abuela like?” I asked more than once, probably as pestering as any persistent five-year-old could be. She was "tall, blond and mal hablada,"  is how my mother described her. Women were not to utter profanities as men did. The abuela had raised 11 children and her un-lady-like language didn't seem like an unusual attribute.  I was less interested in inquiring about el abuelo Miguel. They married on November 19, 1910. He was 30 and she was 18.

Little did they know that the following day would become an important moment in Mexico's history and barely a few months later the Battle of Ciudad Juarez, just 16km away, would bring to the border town a who’s who of revolutionary leaders, like Pancho Villa who captured the attention of U.S media and even appeared on the cover of Collier's magazine (April 29, 1916). It would be the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, ushering a violent decade that must have affected their lives. Approximately a million people died during those violent years, including many from the Spanish Flu pandemic

By the time I became a rebellious teen I would protest: Why bother? The winter winds and later the scorching summer heat of the Northern Chihuahua desert would ruin it all in no time. But on that cold November day, there was no need for a piñata or a birthday cake. No one could ask for more: lots of uncles, aunts, and cousins, flowers everywhere, and a most festive ambiance!

Image: Cementerio de la salitrera Rica Aventura, María Elena, Chile (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)