Monday, May 6, 2013

The Inner Logic of Celebrations

Yesterday was May 5, also known as Cinco de Mayo. Like other occasions (St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, New Year’s Day, for example), the original significance is mostly lost on us and we conflate the days as episodic excuses for getting plastered and eating piles of food. Like we need an excuse for doing that.

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day (which is September 16), but rather the celebration of the underdog Mexican army whipping the tar out of the French in 1861. The French came back in victory a year later and took charge of Mexico until the US joined in and chased the invaders back to France a few years later, which was a smart thing to do since the French aren’t good at making beer and their food would have made the southwestern part of the US a boring place to eat (what—like people would buy fast food at Escargot Bell?

The occasion that really intrigues me is El Dia de los Muertos—The Day of the Dead (November 1 and 2). I’ve learned some things about it and it’s more than rowdy partying and sugary skeleton heads. It’s about remembering all those who have gone before us. It’s about not letting the memory of our ancestors die over time. I like that idea. And I wish that our culture had a better oral tradition (I talked about this a few posts ago).

A friend explained to me the inner logic of this celebration, and I incorporated it into my novel, A Body Given, as a conversation between a women who is helping to care for a young girl rescued from slavery in Guatemala as she spoke to her Anglican priest:

Father Mora opened the door of his bedroom and stepped into the hallway. He saw Reina leaving the room she shared with Ana, carefully shutting the door behind her. She smiled when she saw the priest.

“Buenos diás, Padre,” whispered Reina.

“Buenos diás.” Father Mora motioned toward the kitchen, and followed Reina there.
He often spoke with Reina in English, helping her to become fluent in the language. His frequent visits from church leaders from England and the US made it important for her to be able to speak to them. “How is Ana doing, Reina?”

Reina went to the sink and started making the morning coffee. “She is better, I think, Father. She still holds tightly to me, and she sleeps much. I think she smiled a little last night when she was sleeping. I pray that God heals her dreams.”

“I pray that also. Does she eat well?”

“She eats as though she wants to grow up to be a man.” Reina laughed at her own joke. “Everything I make for her, she eats, and then eats more.”

“Your food is a comfort to all of us, Reina.”

“Where is Father Alec? Will he have coffee?”

“He joined me for prayers early this morning,” said Father Mora. “I think he’ll sleep just a bit more. No coffee for him—only tea.”

As the coffee brewed, Reina made preparations for breakfast. She set plates and silverware on the table where the priest sat, and then paused to speak to him.

“Father, do you think that Ana will really heal? That she will have a good life now?”
Father Mora reached for the plates and arranged them around the table. “God will heal her, Reina. She will always bear the scars of her abuse, but there is great hope for her. It is our privilege to be God’s hands to care for her, and God’s heart to love her.”

Reina nodded as she placed knives and forks around the table. “But there are still others, Father, others that we will not find, ones that will suffer and die, and be forgotten.” Her eyes filled with tears. He remained silent, honoring her grief. After a few moments, she spoke again.

“Father, in a little while we will celebrate El Dia de los Muertos, yes?”

“Yes, of course. The Day of the Dead.” While Father Mora tried to help the people of his parish elevate All Saints Day above the practice of remembering the dead, he couldn’t help but look forward to the mass celebrations that he had enjoyed his entire life. He recognized that he was like everyone else—a product of his own culture.

“My grandmother was from Mexico,” said Reina, “and she used to tell me that we have that day so that we will always remember those who have died—so that we will not forget them. I still know stories of uncles and aunts, grandparents and great-grandparents and even the ones who lived before them. The stories helped me to see that I was part of a larger family than I could ever know. My grandmother taught me something else that I have never forgotten. She taught me that there is not one death, but three. The first is when your body dies and you can no longer share life with the living. It is the death that comes to us all. The second is when you are buried in the ground and your body returns to the earth. There is always sadness when these two deaths happen. But the third is the saddest of them all: It is when you are forgotten, and there is no one left to remember you.” She paused, carefully arranging a place setting next to a colorful ceramic plate. “For many of us, the third death is really the first.”

“You and Ana are here now,” said Father Mora. “God has not forgotten you. You are remembered.

No comments: