November 2: Día de los muertos

- 1952-

1

It is not simply the Day of the Dead—loud, and parties.
More quietly, it is the day of my dead. The day of your dead.

These days, the neon of it all, the big-teeth, laughing skulls,
The posed calacas and Catrinas and happy dead people doing funny things—

It’s all in good humor, and sometimes I can’t help myself: I laugh out loud, too.
But I miss my father. My grandmother has been gone

Almost so long I can’t grab hold of her voice with my ears anymore,
Not easily. My mother-in-law, she’s still here, still in things packed

In boxes, her laughter on videotape, and in conversations.
Our dog died several years ago and I try to say his name

Whenever I leave the house—You take care of this house now,
I say to him, the way I always have, the way he knows.

I grew up with the trips to the cemetery and pan de muerto,
The prayers and the favorite foods, the carne asada, the beer.

But that was in the small town where my memory still lives.
Today, I’m in the big city, and that small town feels far away.

 

2

The Day of the Dead—it’s really the days of the dead. All Saints’ Day,
The first of November, also called the día de los angelitos

Everybody thinks it’s Day of the Dead—but it’s not, not exactly.
This first day is for those who have died a saint

And for the small innocents—the criaturas­—the tender creatures
Who have been taken from us all, sometimes without a name.

To die a saint deserves its day, to die a child. The following day,
The second of November, this is for everybody else who has died

And there are so many,
A grandmother, a father, a distant uncle or lost cousin.

It is hard enough to keep track even within one’s own family.
But the day belongs to everyone, so many home altars,

So many parents gone, so many husbands, so many
Aunt Normas, so many Connies and Matildes. Countless friends.

Still, by the end of the day, we all ask ourselves the same thing:
Isn’t this all over yet?

 

3

All these dead coming after—and so close to—Halloween,
The days all start to blend,

The goblins and princesses of the miniature world
Not so different from the ways in which we imagine

Those who are gone, their memories smaller, their clothes brighter.
We want to feed them only candy, too—so much candy

That our own mouths will get hypnotized by the sweetness,
Our own eyes dazzled by the color, our noses by the smells

The first cool breath of fall makes, a fire always burning
Somewhere out there. We feed our memories

And then, humans that we are, we just want to move quickly away
From it all, happy for the richness of everything

If unsettled by the cut pumpkins and gourds,
The howling decorations. The marigolds—cempasúchiles

If it rains, they stink, these fussy flowers of the dead.
Bread of the dead, day of the dead—it’s hard to keep saying the word.

 

4

The dead:
They take over the town like beach vacationers, returning tourists getting into everything:

I had my honeymoon here, they say, and are always full of contagious nostalgia.
But it’s all right. They go away, after a while.

They go, and you miss them all over again.
The papel picado, the cut blue and red and green paper decorations,

The empanadas and coconut candy, the boxes of cajeta, saladitos,
Which make your tongue white like a ghost’s—

You miss all of it soon enough,
Pictures of people smiling, news stories, all the fiestas, all this exhaustion.

The coming night, the sweet breads, the bone tiredness of too much—
Loud noise, loud colors, loud food, mariachis, even just talking.

It’s all a lot of noise, but it belongs here. The loud is to help us not think,
To make us confuse the day and our feelings with happiness.

Because, you know, if we do think about our dead,
Wherever they are, we’ll get sad, and begin to look across at each other.

The Cities Inside Us

We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece 
Through the eye and through the ear.

It's loud inside us, in there, and when we speak
In the outside world

We have to hope that some of that sound
Does not come out, that an arm

Not reach out
In place of the tongue.

Day of the Refugios

      In Mexico and Latin America, celebrating one's
      Saint's day instead of one's birthday is common.


I was born in Nogales, Arizona,
On the border between 
Mexico and the United States.

The places in between places
They are like little countries
Themselves, with their own holidays

Taken a little from everywhere.
My Fourth of July is from childhood,
Childhood itself a kind of country, too.

It's a place that's far from me now,
A place I'd like to visit again.
The Fourth of July takes me there.

In that childhood place and border place
The Fourth of July, like everything else,
It meant more than just one thing.

In the United States the Fourth of July
It was the United States.
In Mexico it was the día de los Refugios,

The saint's day of people named Refugio.
I come from a family of people with names,
Real names, not-afraid names, with colors

Like the fireworks: Refugio,
Margarito, Matilde, Alvaro, Consuelo,
Humberto, Olga, Celina, Gilberto.

Names that take a moment to say,
Names you have to practice.
These were the names of saints, serious ones,

And it was right to take a moment with them.
I guess that's what my family thought.
The connection to saints was strong:

My grandmother's name—here it comes—
Her name was Refugio,
And my great-grandmother's name was Refugio,

And my mother-in-law's name now,
It's another Refugio, Refugios everywhere,
Refugios and shrimp cocktails and sodas.

Fourth of July was a birthday party
For all the women in my family
Going way back, a party

For everything Mexico, where they came from,
For the other words and the green
Tinted glasses my great-grandmother wore.

These women were me,
What I was before me,
So that birthday fireworks in the evening,

All for them,
This seemed right.
In that way the fireworks were for me, too.

Still, we were in the United States now,
And the Fourth of July,
Well, it was the Fourth of July.

But just what that meant,
In this border place and time,
it was a matter of opinion in my family.

Refugio's Hair

In the old days of our family,
My grandmother was a young woman
Whose hair was as long as the river.
She lived with her sisters on the ranch
La Calera—The Land of the Lime—
And her days were happy.
But her uncle Carlos lived there too,
Carlos whose soul had the edge of a knife.
One day, to teach her to ride a horse,
He made her climb on the fastest one,
Bareback, and sit there
As he held its long face in his arms.
And then he did the unspeakable deed 
For which he would always be remembered:
He called for the handsome baby Pirrín
And he placed the child in her arms.
With that picture of a Madonna on horseback
He slapped the shank of the horse's rear leg.
The horse did what a horse must,
Racing full toward the bright horizon.
But first he ran under the álamo trees
To rid his back of this unfair weight:
This woman full of tears
And this baby full of love.
When they reached the trees and went under,
Her hair, which had trailed her,
Equal in its magnificence to the tail of the horse,
That hair rose up and flew into the branches
As if it were a thousand arms,
All of them trying to save her.
The horse ran off and left her,
The baby still in her arms,
The two of them hanging from her hair.
The baby looked only at her
And did not cry, so steady was her cradle.
Her sisters came running to save them.
But the hair would not let go.
From its fear it held on and had to be cut,
All of it, from her head.
From that day on, my grandmother 
Wore her hair short like a scream,
But it was long like a river in her sleep.