Día De Los Muertos: Phantoms Of The Cultural Subconscious

For Americans with Mexican heritage, the Day of the Dead is a time to bridge the gap across generations, languages and the afterlife.

I can’t sleep. My mind wanders – work, girlfriend, work, family, a cell phone buzz, calendar alert: “reminder: grandpa’s b-day”. I swipe the reminder away, and add a note: flower shop, herradura tequila, Mario’s Tacos, call mom. She took his passing especially hard, so on days like his birthday and Día de los Muertos – when Mexicans remember their dead – I try to get her to open up, so the echoes and reverberations don’t become dark and claustrophobic. The Day of the Dead is about airing grief colorfully, creatively, exuberantly; the living honoring the dead with lovingly decorated graves and shrines.

My grandfather passed away five years ago. I didn’t actually know him that well, but we had an inexplicable bond – a closeness that never needed to be validated by shared experience. In retrospect, I wish I had tried to get to know him better, but the distance between us was more than the generational divide that so many struggle to bridge, it was linguistic. Spanish was his first language, basically his only language, and English was mine.

He was actually born in the States in the 1930s, in Oregon, but grew up on a ranch in Mexico. Although he lived his entire adult life traveling back and forth from the ranch to the U.S., he never embraced the English language. Even when he planted roots in Los Angeles, he stuck to the Spanish-speaking layer of the city and relied on his children to help him navigate the rest.

On the other side of the divide were my siblings and me. Growing up third generation Mexican-American, my mother never taught us Spanish because she didn’t want us to speak English with an accent. When she was growing up in LA the ‘60s, it was acceptable for teachers in public schools to hit students for speaking with accents, and she didn’t want us dealing with that type of persecution.

From my childhood point of view, my grandpa was shrouded in mystery; his words and action imbued with a solemn quietude. Little did I know that his reticence around his grandkids was simply a refusal to expose them to his broken English. After he passed away, the stories came pouring out from my extended family, and I came to learn that his stoic façade had been hiding a gregarious and bold personality. My great aunt once told me an incredible story of how he saved a child’s life…

My grandpa is about 25, just married with a baby on the way, living on his ranch in Mexico. Their town of about 500 people desperately needs a new well so their crops can stand a chance against drought, but there’s no money to hire workers and the only tools at their disposal are shovels, buckets, and their hands. Grandpa takes it upon himself to organize the project and he knows just how to get everyone motivated. He throws a big, three day party. Up above, people are playing music and cooking: making mole, roasting birria in the fire pits, and grinding corn for masa to make tortillas. Down below, grandpa is organizing a rotation of diggers – making sure they’re fed and watered, even taking shifts himself.

On the third night, with only a few feet to go, the diggers take a break so that everyone can witness them hit water in daylight. As the town sleeps, some young boys sneak out to the well to play at their parents’ work. Shortly after midnight, grandpa’s awoken by a frantic child who tells him that a boy has fallen down the well – 20 feet to the bottom of a freezing, pitch-black pit. What had been a well-digging party immediately transforms into a rescue operation, and grandpa is at the helm. They quickly realize that the boy must be unconscious and they’ll need to dig a parallel hole to reach him.

By this time, the whole town is involved, working deep into the night. Despite exhaustion, doubt, bitter arguments, and some people even quitting, grandpa and a determined few keep digging, and after sunrise they receive a sign that reinvigorates them – “ayudame” – a faint cry for help. By noon, less than twelve hours after they started, the parallel hole is as deep as the first. They lower grandpa down to dig the connecting tunnel. After a tense silence they haul him back out. He emerges, clutching a shivering, barely breathing little body, and a communal sigh of gratitude sweeps through the crowd as they thank God. The boy was saved – “¡Milagro!” – it was a miracle.

My grandfather never told me this story, one story in a lifetime of adventures, losses, and triumphs. If this one story can so utterly alter my perspective of who he was, how much more so an entire library of stories? It is these muted narratives I’ll never know. These hauntings take place all around us, they move us to witness the unknown, to travel the world, learn a new language or to finally admit that there are phantom languages haunting us daily, reaching out within us to remember our own forgotten “other” tongue.

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