Sometimes, while I’m cleaning my desk and organizing the piles of unfolded clothes that litter my rug, I like to plop myself down in the center of my college bedroom and just think. That’s where I found myself today, surrounded by a mess of pillows and rejected outfits, sitting on the cold linoleum floor of my apartment. An old Joan Sebastian song plays quietly from my phone, a vent in the far corner hums with the sound of the heater, and I breathe.
The wilting ofrenda by my bookshelf stares at me. I stare back.
It’s the third year that I find myself alone on Día de Muertos, and the billionth time that I find myself pondering the alternate universe in which I didn’t decide to move to a college a couple hundred miles away from home. At home, organizing the ofrenda was always my responsibility as the oldest—finding the colorful papel picado, printing out the pictures, and buying the orange cempasuchil that got sorted into vases. We’d light candles that were blessed by our priest, offer pan dulce and fruit, and pray a rosary each night until the altar had to come down. The faces of my deceased family would smile down on me: of my grandpa who died in Mexico, of my brother who crashed his car at 16, of my cousin who disappeared without a single trace. Family that I never got to truly say goodbye to, be it because of distance or simply just because life is unfair. Día de Muertos was always a way to reconcile that, to give myself a chance to tie the ends I never got to tie.
Now, the responsibility is still mine—the only difference is that, for the past three years, I’ve done it alone. My small attempt at an ofrenda in my college dorm, or now apartment, can hardly measure up. There’s no papel picado, because I don’t know where to find it in Philadelphia and I fear that my dead would haunt me in my sleep if I tried using the plastic Amazon–bought crap. The dozens of pictures that adorned our altar at home have been reduced to three—my brother, my grandparents, and now my dog—because those are the only pictures I have in my possession. Instead of pan dulce I offer them Trader Joe’s apples, mini Hershey bars and Reese’s cups from the Halloween aisle of the CVS, and mango Bubbaloo gum that I saved from my trip to Mexico over the summer. What is usually an intentional, beautiful altar has become something that looks like an exhausted collection of knickknackery and leftover candy.
In my defense, I’m still doing the best I can.
Celebrations of the dead are not exclusive to Mexican culture. Obon is a Japanese festival that honors the spirits of one’s ancestors. Chuseok, celebrated in South Korea, also features a celebration and commemoration of people’s dead. Clearly, celebrating and honoring one’s dead relatives and loved ones is not an isolated tradition—it truly seems to be innate nature to love people much beyond their living presence.
In the same way that art across time and geography has embraced feelings of love and happiness, there also exist genres of art dedicated to mourning. Poems, such as "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost, evoke not only the beauty of loving in life, but the pain of remembering after death. Music is also a popular form of expression for grief, with songs like "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth, written in memory of the late Paul Walker. Juan Gabriel’s "Amor Eterno" (and its subsequent cover by Rocío Dúrcal) was written in memory of his late mother, and has become a quintessential song that every Mexican knows like the back of their hand, and that moves entire audiences to tears.
The film industry is no exception. The Pixar movie Coco is one of my favorite movies. It’s about Miguel, a young boy who discovers, in the realm of the dead, only those who are placed on an ofrenda can cross over to the living realm on Día de Muertos. Not only that, but there exists a community of people who, unfortunately, are never placed on any ofrenda, confined to the realm of the dead. Although intended to be a children’s movie, Coco explores an interesting aspect of this commemoration—once a spirit is no longer remembered at all, once the last memory of them is gone from the living world and not passed on any longer, they cease to exist. The last person that remembers you in the realm of the living passes, and you disappear from all memory entirely.
Sometimes I wonder if this is truly the fate of humankind. It reminds me of a quote I read on Tumblr when I was younger, about how people really die two deaths—once physically, and once when their name is said for the last time. Will the spirit of my brother disappear into oblivion when my parents, my cousins, and I die? How many people even achieve this level of perpetual commemoration? Although an interesting concept, I don’t like to bother with dwelling on fame and oblivion when it comes to holidays of remembrance and instead focus on the people who I have spent time loving in my life.
To love each other so much in life and try to keep those memories alive once people are gone is both beautiful and painful. It’s been almost seven years since my brother Alex joined the ranks of my ofrenda, and looking at his smiling face in the pictures still fills my heart with joy while also squeezing it with grief. My little Marley, a dog that could only be described as "scrungly" and who stood by my side for fifteen years, joins my ofrenda this year. Each night, now, I light my candles alone. I pray a rosary the same way that I have since I was seven, a ritual so normal and dear to me that I find myself at home in the words that I have probably spoken a million times in my lifetime.
Perhaps I never got to say a final goodnight to Marley. I never got to give Alex one last hug, my mom never got to say goodbye to her father, and so on. There’s a lot of things in life that I will probably regret not being able to do, but I know I’ll never regret loving them the way that I did, and still do. I know in my heart that they can still see me, still watch over me, and that they appreciate my ofrenda, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem. It might not be the most impressive, but my marigolds are bright and my love for them is still strong.
Celebrations like Día de Muertos let us believe that our dead are still around, and that they will be for as long as we can remember them. My love for my people is not confined to the week in November that my ofrenda is up—I remember them every day, hiding in an old copy of El Chavo del Ocho that I stole from my brother (and take everywhere), or in a forgotten piece of heart–shaped kibble that Marley left in the corner of my room when my family was moving me in to my apartment. The world might keep spinning after they are gone and the pain of missing them might start to fade, but I still remember them.
And so I stop staring at my ofrenda. "Eso y Más" by Joan Sebastian is still playing from my phone—a song that never fails to remind me of home—and the vent is still humming and I finally get up off the cold linoleum of my room. The wilting marigolds get new water, the picture frames of my brother and my dog go back on my desk, and the polaroid of my grandparents goes back in my Bible. Grief is a side effect of loving, but it’s a side effect that I proudly and happily will endure if that only means that I know I have loved. My only hope is that one day, someone will love me enough to remember me in this way too.