(Originally published in November 2014 edition of The Valley Catholic newspaper)
Remembering who came before us
I don’t always celebrate Mother’s Day in May. I prefer to celebrate it in November. This Nov. 8 marks the 22-year anniversary of my mother’s death. She was 50 years old at the time. I was in my mid-twenties balancing a new career and motherhood. My two-year-old son demanded all my attention. I was not prepared for her passing or for what it meant to lose a mother.
Her death has helped me look at life differently; it helped me understand that we must honor each day on this pilgrimage walk. At the same time, I want to honor her memory, and to acknowledge the gift of her life.
I was drawn to Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrated on All Souls’ Day Nov. 2. The practice of setting up an altar in memory of family and friends and placing ofrendas before their image, items our loved ones liked while alive, served as a way to celebrate my mother, a woman who devoted her life to her children. The tradition has helped me understand our transient walk on this earth, and to celebrate those who came before us.
In this month dedicated to remembering the dead and praying for the souls in purgatory, I find comfort in knowing that death does not mean the end. “Life is changed, not ended,” says Father Gregory Labus, coordinator of the Office of Liturgy and Worship for the Diocese of Brownsville says.
Father Jorge Gomez, Chancellor of the Diocese of Brownsville and pastor of Holy Family Church in Brownsville, reminds us, “For God no one is dead, everyone is alive, and we celebrate their lives.” The Feast of All Souls he said, is a way to commemorate and remember people we love. “As long as we remember, they’re still alive in our hearts and minds.”
I particularly like the festive tone of the tradition and the bright colors used – the vivid orange of the cempazuchitl (marigolds) and the primary colors of the papel picado.
“The colors are alive,” says Father Ignacio Luna, pastor of St. Benedict Church in San Benito. “They manifest the joy because there is no sadness, no mourning, no use of black. There is simply joy and happiness because their souls are already in God’s hands.” “Es una fiesta no para llorar, sino para gozar,” he said.
Octavio Paz once wrote that, “In the United States the word death burns the lips, but the Mexican lives close to it, jokes about it, caresses it, celebrates it, sleeps with it, it is his favorite toy.” Hence some of the customs, such as decorating the altars with skeletons and skulls, poke fun at death and serve as reminders about our mortality.
Father Gomez said, “It’s a cultural way of looking at death… La muerte no triunfa. We celebrate life, not death. We are not afraid of death because death does not have the final word in this life.”
So this November, I honor the woman who influenced me most – Marina Camila Trejo Ruiz, la primera voz que oí. An immigrant from Mexico, my mother’s choice to cross el Rio Bravo, to cross her life into the United States, changed our destiny. She never graduated high school or went to college, but I have shared before how the most important lessons I learned didn’t come from books or school, I gained them from my mother’s humble ways. Growing up, we never left home without her blessing. With the sign of the cross on our foreheads she was commending us, her three daughters and a son, to God’s protection. She taught us daily to place our trust in God. She also taught us to care for family. On her only day off, she crossed the border into Matamoros each week to visit her mother and to take her groceries or clothes and supplies for her younger brothers and sisters.
Through her actions, she taught me the importance of caring for those in our midst, family, friends, strangers. She also taught me to care for the earth, the joy of gardening, and the joy of drinking tea with the comadres and telling stories.
My mother’s death influences my daily pilgrimage. La primera voz nunca se olvida. I live in God’s grace-filled moments, knowing I must honor the gift of each day. My daughter never got to meet her grandmother, but I make sure she meets her in the stories I share.
How fortunate that we have 30 days in this November devotion to the Holy Souls in Purgatory to pray for the dead, and to consider how we are living our lives now. Does it honor God’s will? Does it honor those who came before us?
Author: Brenda Nettles-Riojas
Brenda, in her own words: “I write in order to breathe,it’s as simple as that or maybe not. Working on master’s degree of Fine Arts in creative writing through the University of New Orleans. Completed three summer residencies – Madrid, Spain (2007), San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (2008); Ezra Pound Center for Literature at Brunnenburg in Merano Italy (2009) Poetry has been published in a number of publications including di-verse-city (Austin International Poetry Anthology), Ribbons (Quarterly Journal Published by the Tanka Society of America), 2008 Texas Poetry Calendar, Interstice and Ezra — An Online Journal of Translation.”