The post “Offerings/Ofrendas” is dedicated to my daughter Melodia Mendoza-Medley in remembrance of her father Raul Alfredo Mendoza who passed away before father and daughter had a chance to reunite. Difficult life circumstances and an interminable separation robbed them of the chance to be together body and soul. In turn, “Offerings” is dedicated to Raul, who may know Melodia better than anyone can understand. The photomontage accompanying “Ofrendas” was created by Melodia in honor of her father and of all of those who have passed away. Through letters, before his death, Raul was able to reach out to Melodia directly and sometimes through me from half a world away. Though the letters were too few, the love encapsulated within them was infinitely powerful and sweet. If Raul were with us today, he would be making his own special offering of a drink from his bottle and a party to celebrate our union. May we celebrate the love between father and daughter and among all of us.
Sometimes as we journey through life, we need to explore the unknown, to step into the dark spaces. We do this with the deep knowing that always there will be light along the path, as that is how the universe is designed: where we find light, we find dark, where there is dark, we find light. As we journey into the unknown, it’s certain that we will be compelled to make our way to the seat of our courage, our hearts, in order to let in all that is offered up to us as people of the earth, to accept these gifts though they may seem strange and threatening. As we release our fears of what we don’t comprehend or accept, the light seeps in and opens us to wonder.
What dark, frightening place can we explore when we want an enlightening experience? For me, it is the cemetery, specifically the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on a moonlit night for a grand excursion of the sacred place of the dead. Death has been a topic that I have always preferred to avoid. Too many of those whom I have loved have slipped away to another world that I don’t comprehend. I ache that they are not with me, and their departures have made me fearful of my own inevitable passing. A good tonic for my deep-seated fears came just days ago in the form of Day of the Dead celebrations,or In Spanish, Dia de Los Muertos. It is the day that all Mexicans take time to make offerings, orofrendas, to those they have loved and lost.
To enter the Hollywood Forever cemetery, where the Day of the Dead celebrations took place, I had to pass through a giant golden arch made of marigolds, or cempasuchitl. To see the top of the arch I had to look directly into the stars. “How clever”, I thought, “This archway is drawing me into a heavenly place, and the color is making my heart sing.” The beautiful arch signaled to me that I was about to travel the passage between life and death that we will all take one day and that I should not fear the journey. In the cemetery there were altars everywhere I looked, temporary sacred centers of worship and ritual lovingly constructed for departed family members. Standing around the altars were the living family members, reverent but not sad. Lovingly, mounds of giant marigolds were thoughtfully placed at every altar. The flowers and sometimes just the petals alone were used to communicate to the spirits the richness of the altar offerings. Paths of marigold flowers were created by families to aid the souls in finding their way home to the altar. My friend Ian asked me, why marigolds? And I told him: to help the spirits see their way home for the night of the party and to ensure that the home is fragrant and beautiful.
In Mexico, death is something to be celebrated. At each altar, I saw the traditional symbols of Day of the Dead festivities. I looked for sugar skulls, or calaveras, with the name of the deceased written in icing across the forehead. I saw loaves of bread, or pan de muertos, baked especially for this day and decorated with bones. This bread represents the souls of the dead. The essence or soul of the bread is consumed by the dead when they visit their loved ones at the altar. Other foods on the altar are tamales and spicy, chocolatey mole for the adults. Sweets are placed on the altar for the children, or los angelitos (little angels) who have passed away.
I saw candlelight everywhere. Each altar was decorated with candles, some with dozens in different sizes, others with twinkling holiday lights. Everywhere I looked there were candles and torches to light the way for the living and the dead. Melodia was charmed by the altar of a woman who clearly had loved Hello Kitty. This altar was festooned with paper lanterns decorated with friendly Hello Kitty faces. The altar lights were in pretty pastels to highlight the tastes and physical characteristics of the pretty lady to whom the altar was dedicated.
On each altar was a photo of the deceased, placed at the highest level of the altar. Cascading down the altar were photos of other family members who had passed away. These photos drew me in. Everywhere I turned, I saw beautiful framed faces. I wanted to see each face at each altar, to know a little better the person who was so important in so many ways and so beloved that an altar had been constructed to show such reverence. The altars seemed to serve as a window into the deceased person’s soul, an invitation to make a connection, to open my heart to another human being. Standing there alone at the altar, I felt as if I had been invited in to share in the reverie. I found myself feeling embraced by so much love, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry a little or laugh a lot. That night I laughed, giggled, prayed a little, and reached out for my loved ones.
In the dark cemetery under the moonlight, I followed the lights and aromas from altar to altar. It is tradition to burn massive bowls of copal incense at the day of the dead altars. The copal clears the space of any negative energy or bad spirits and helps the dead find their way to their altar and awaiting family. In preparation for the arrival of the honored ancestor, the family hangs colorful squares of lacy cut paper flags, or papel picado. These flags represent the wind and help to guide the dead family member to the altar. That night in the cemetery the beauty of the cut paper flags cleverly called me to the altars. As if the paper were wrapped around a gift, I instinctively wanted to know what treasures I could find as I was drawn toward it.
In Mexico, since death is something to be celebrated, many altars are decorated with hand-made skeleton dolls having fun, some as large as actual people. These dolls often are dressed as band members playing instruments, bartenders serving drinks, beautiful ladies parading in their best finery, even brides and grooms celebrating their weddings. There was no shortage of these skeleton dolls at the Day of the Dead celebrations the night I was there. I was intrigued by the live humans costumed as skeletons dolls. They took their places at some of the altars and added to the drama of the event. I was charmed by the quiet humor combined with sincere reverence that they brought to the altars.
To heighten the enjoyment of all who were there at the cemetery, there were bands playing music, vendors selling traditional street foods, others selling artwork, jewelry, leather goods, clothing, or trinkets, all made in Mexico. I could feel the collective delight of the souls who were there to celebrate, some in the flesh and others not. We were all magically connected.
That night I left the festivities with a different view of death, and a deeper appreciation of Mexico. Though I hold a special place in my heart for all things Latin American, I found more space within me for greater love and appreciation of what Mexico offered me that special night of the Day of the Dead. In facing death, I can find some acceptance whereas I couldn’t before. Like most of us, no matter what our cultural background is, I want to delay as long as I can that moment when my life as I know it will end. For now, though, I am a little closer to understanding the lasting power of love…in this life and beyond.
I want to thank my daughter Melodia, my friends Ian and Orion, and the courageous Nicole for their company at my first Day of the Dead celebration. Nicole, may your mother now rest in peace. Each of you lifted me up and showered me with your love. I will love you in this life and in the next.