By Chas McNamara
Riding the train back to my hometown, I’m holding a photo of my friends and me with my uncle Mando standing behind us. How carefree we were back then, close-knit and full of love for one another. Mando is happy and bursting with life in the photo. This is how I want to remember him. I’ll place this photo on the altar at his grave for our Day of the Dead picnic.
In August he succumbed to old age and the unmerciful heat of the Chihuahuan Desert. He was seventy. November third will be the first Dia De Los Muertos when my family will remember and honor his spirit.
The celebration of his life has drawn me back to the place I grew up wanting to leave. I hold the photo to my chest, watching the desert streak by, recalling how I dreaded becoming a copper miner like everyone else and how I wanted to escape the desert heat. It was intolerable.
After high school I left Arizona hopping freight trains heading east toward Las Cruces, working in fields and sleeping outdoors. I ended up in Santa Fe working as a waiter. It’s been eight years. When my sister wrote me that Mando was dead, I knew it was important to return. I’ve missed my friends and loved ones.
The photo captures a moment from our life in Pirtleville, the poorer part of the town of Douglas in the southeast corner of Arizona. No trees. No lawns. No flowers. No sidewalks. Lots of dust. Only the baseball games, marbles, and throwing rocks at my friends made it tolerable. We made our own fun. My eyes brightened as these memories came to mind.
My cousin Alfonso asked me to help build the altar to Mando’s memory. He and I grew up together in the same classes in school. He was strong and played football. We drove around Douglas picking up tables and chairs, strings of party lights and tools.
“Nothing’s changed,” I said with my head halfway out the car window watching the shops and houses roll past.
“Not much has changed since you deserted us, sorry, I mean, since you left to seek your fortune.”
“Are you working at Phelps Dodge?”
“Diesel mechanic at the Reduction Smelter.”
“You look good my friend,” I said.
I wonder who I would have married. No one came to mind, another reason I left.
We parked in front of Cochise Supplies. As we gathered decorations, Alfonso shared a memory of our time with Mando.
“Mando used to tell us “Voy hacer calabacitas,” Alfonso said. “That was like telling us he was going to give us money for the ice cream man.”
“The best part was the cheese,” I said. “I loaded mine up with Oaxaca cheese and Queso Quesadilla. Both melted into the broth and all over the squash. It was a feast for the body, mind, and spirit. Rest in peace, Mando. We love you.”
In the small plot behind his white frame house at the end of town, we cut the weeds around his grave, and the adjacent graves of our relatives.
I stopped and leaned on my rake. “Remember how often we gathered to laze in the shade on his rickety front porch? He always sat in a straight-backed wooden rocking chair, sipping mescal, telling us stories he’d heard from our ancestors.”
While we were sweeping away the layers of desert sand, Alicia, my older sister, drove up with pots of orange Mexican marigolds for the altar.
“Alicia, you’re as elegant as I remember you.”
Looking down she said, “Welcome home. Are you here to stay?”
I lowered my head so she wouldn’t see the tears glisten in my eyes. I hugged her for a long moment. Her black hair was parted in the middle and pulled back around her head. Streaks of gray glistened in the sunlight. We set the six pots in the shade of the porch.
“They’ll attract his soul,” she said. “So are you home for good?”
“No. I like it in Santa Fe.”
“You don’t miss your family?”
“Oh, my heart aches every time I remember what we did together as kids. But I have a new life now.”
“Life without family.”
I didn’t reply. A wave of nostalgia came over me as I remembered trying to slide behind a customer in the checkout line at the Piggly Wiggly. Alicia was the checker.
“Hold on there Gerardo,” Alice said from behind the cash register. She made Alfonso and I empty our pockets on the counter. After totaling the value of the candy we were stealing, she opened her purse and put the money in the cash register.
“Don’t let me catch you doing that again.”
“Your letters don’t tell us much. Is this a secret life you live?”
“Sort of. Nobody in Santa Fe knows my life story like you do. I have a few friends. Mostly staff at the restaurant. We’re close. We talk about everything. If we don’t see each other regularly, it’s as though no time has passed. Picking up where we left off is easy.”
“Does it seem that way with us?”
“My family will always be the best friends I have.”
Alicia looked out along the dirt street, her head shaking slightly. She pursed her lips. “How did you bring yourself to leave?”
“When mom and dad got divorced it seemed like the family was torn apart. I hopped in an open freight car and left. Never once regretted it, until now.”
She smiled and took my hand. “Mando would often put four or five of us on his mule and lead us a mile across the border to his grandmother’s house in Agua Prieta. Remember?”
“Yes. The border back then was a limp strand of barbed wire. Everyone jumped it to see friends and relatives in both towns.”
“Lourdes cooked us breakfast of fried cornmeal with butter and syrup, scrambled eggs and green chilies. Wow, the chilies were hot,” I said.
“She always asked Mando for a “whiskito,” Alicia said. “He filled shot glasses for both of them to sip during breakfast.”
“That always got her telling stories about seeing Pancho Villa.”
“I can still hear her sweet voice as she relived the story,” Alicia said.
Grandma Lourdes began. “He raided our town in the autumn of 1915, I think it was. Villa arrived to find Agua Prieta fortified with deep trenches, barbed wire, machine-gun nests and landmines. He waited until after midnight to attack. But as he made his nighttime charge, the Mexican army lit huge searchlights, illuminating the battlefield. Villa’s cavalry was ravaged by machine-gun fire. He was forced to retreat, leaving behind thousands of dead.”
“We could see the explosions in Douglas and smell the gunpowder,” Mando told us. “Bullets and shells whistled through town, scarring buildings and wounding American soldiers who had been deployed to keep the fighting from spilling across the line.
“We watched it all while hiding in the alleys,” Mando said. “We had front-row seats.”
“Everything changed for Mexico after that battle,” Lourdes said. “Villa was never a power again.”
Standing with Alicia on Mando’s front porch next to the marigolds I said, “Mando told us Villa’s ghost still haunts the halls of the Gadsden Hotel in Douglas. We screamed and laughed when he jumped up, waving his arms, moaning, and screaming. He stomped his feet and knocked on the walls imitating an apparition of a dead person. He was so good at that.”
The morning of the celebration, we put Mando’s favorite foods around the altar, along with photos and memorabilia. Día de Los Muertos is a celebration of the deceased, a way to embrace rather than fear death.
One cousin brought a Christian cross, another added pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There were many faded photos of deceased relatives and scores of candles. Pillows and blankets were left so Mando could rest after his long journey.
Everyone brings miniature sugar skulls decorated with feathers, colored beads, foils, and icing. They are colorful and whimsical, not scary at all.
Alicia and one of our cousins cut out elaborate designs for papeles picado and strung them across the altar. Sunlight flashed through the small holes.
I inhale the smell from plates of tamales placed on a table near the altar along with shots of mescal, Mando’s favorite drink, for all of us to share.
Our neighbors sauntered down the road toward the house in an informal procession. Many wore skull masks. The children’s faces were meticulously painted with funny smiling skeleton faces surrounded by flowers in their hair.
I wore a mask and my black sombrero with gold trim. I’d bought it in Agua Prieta years ago. It is a reminder of who I am, where I came from.
A group of grinning skeletons walked toward me. One stood in front of me, cocking his head and staring into my eyes. He wore white muslin pants with a long sleeve pullover shirt, red bandana around his neck, a bandolier of ammunition across his chest and a white pointed straw sombrero like the Mexican revolutionaries wore. His mask had a large black mustache like Pancho Villa’s. He drifted past me with the others. When I turned and looked back, the skeleton was looking back at me. I felt sure it was the spirit of Mando.
Mando, do you miss being here like I do? Is it time for me to come home?
At his grave, we shared memories of our life with him and prayed for his spirit. The mourning was brief. The celebration lasted into the night.
Alicia brought a large cast iron pot full of calabacitas and put it on a small campfire a few yards away.
Everyone gathered for a bowl of the vegetable soup. The broth was tomato red with chunks of yellow corn, slices of green zucchini and yellow squash all covered with white cheese. Strings of cheese followed every bite sticking to my chin and my nose.
Alicia wore a sleeveless, tunic-like blouse embroidered with traditional patterns from the state of Sonora. She made the huipil in honor of Mando. The colors matched the colors of the stew.
“Good, no?” Alicia said.
“Delicioso, just like I remember Mando’s.”
She covered her shy smile with her hand as she remembered a moment with our uncle.
“I remember he loved to kiss,” she said. “In grade school, we would hide behind the Piggly Wiggly and kiss for hours.”
“What else would you do back there, Alicia?” I asked.
“Nothing. We only kissed, and kissed, until my lips were swollen.”
“Mando sat behind my brother and me every Sunday at Mass,” I said. “Our family went every week. No questions. And it wasn’t like school where you could complain of stomach flu and maybe get to stay home. To get out of going to Mass, you had to have an oozing scorpion bite, or a fever at least. He’d grab the back of my neck if I fell asleep or started poking my brother.”
Life is rich with memories. On a day like today, surrounded by friendly skeletons, I didn’t fear death. I will cherish this moment.
Standing in front of the altar, I unfolded a piece of paper from my back pocket and turned toward the group.
“I wrote this for you, Mando.
“Nuestro amigo Armando was known to us as Mando. We listened without yawning to his out-of-tune cantando.
“We swung from his arms when bailando and he joined in with us for jugando.
“But when he got older, he felt descansando and sat in his chair to restando.”
“Restando?” Alfonso said.
“Yea, I made it up. It means resting, so it rhymes with jugando, playing.”
He handed me a shot of mescal. “You need more of this before you write any more poetry.”
We toasted Mando as the sun set on the Chiricahuas.
Alfonso turned toward me. “Here’s to you mi amigo. Are you ready to come home?”
“I carry home with me here in my heart.”
“I’ll leave a light on in my heart in case you pass this way again,” Alfonso said.