One of the (many) beautiful things about Día de los Muertos is, how it is a communal practice. You don’t have to know someone to share in the sorrow or the celebration, we can come together simply because we belong to the same culture and community.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew I wanted to go, I had to go, pay my final respects. The Consulado General de México en El Paso and Centro Cultural Mexicano Paso del Norte hosted “Altar de Muertos” in honor of Día de los Muertos, in remembrance of the victims of Mexico’s earthquakes.
I had been in Mexico City the day the 7.1 earthquake hit and so I came here hoping to find inner peace. Since the day I returned to the states, I had not been able to look at images from that fateful day, and aside from people asking me “what happened,” I myself had not been able to really process my own feelings.
The truth is, I felt a lot of survivor’s guilt.
How do 32 children die in the blink of an eye, but you are still standing? Some things don’t make sense and yet, you have to force yourself to find the glory and gift in your life, to make sure that you live with purpose for those that no longer are with us.
I walked in right at the moment the custom piece by local artist, Luís Colomo, was about to be unveiled.
We took a moment of silence and I felt my heart begin to race. I set eyes upon the imagery and instantly I felt the tears begin to well up, it was brilliantly done.
Before the artist even began speaking I already knew exactly what each item reflected. It was as if he had been there. The bright orange pueblo skirt off to the side, in honor of the other areas like Morelos and Puebla, who suffer great loses but are often excluded from the rescue efforts.
The black ribbon on a tombstone for victims of the earthquakes, including the one that had just hit Oaxaca on September 7th.
Stepping back, I can see a building about to fall…Roma (the neighborhood where many of the buildings fell on the first day).
My eyes continued on, I see the head of the ancient civilization, a Toltec god headstone, toppled over. I then notice under the rubble, the school crosswalk sign, symbolizing the children…the tears sting on the brim of my lids.
Shifting focus, I notice that the darkness is actually in the shape of México, it has been blacked out, in mourning.
I take a moment to collect myself. I look at the painting again and the bright blue image of Frida’s “Casa Azul” instantly calms me, much as it did on the day of the earthquake.
She was the reason I wasn’t in center of the destruction.
That fateful day I was supposed to have gone to Roma and checked-in to my new room. I decided that morning to not go straight away and instead spend it with Frida Kahlo at her museum.
Ironically, we had an earthquake simulation drill while at the museum, around 11am; they do it annually throughout the entire city in remembrance of all the lives lost in the devastating 8.1 magnitude 1985 earthquake, which claimed 10,000 lives, leaving 30,000 injured and just as many homeless.
It would be 2 hours later as I was walking down the street, that another mega quake would strike, exactly 32 years to the date.
With the city in chaos, I had to figure out how get back to my AirBnB location without Wifi, without directions, no cell service, just praying to God and the ancestors to guide me back.
As it turned out, the place I was supposed to originally be at that morning, had been evacuated. I like to say that God (and Frida Kahlo) were with me that day.
Now just 6 weeks later, I was here to pay my respects. As I continued reliving the grief, I also began to remember the incredible acts of kindness that I witnessed in the moments immediately following the shock (and for the duration of the time I was there) this was also present in this painting, the spirit and strength of México.
The solidarity of the city. The vendors that pulled their carts out into the streets to feed the people, there was a citywide blackout so stores and restaurants were closed, but the street vendors, they were there.
Each time I took an Uber ride to a volunteer site (shoutout to Uber for giving free rides to any volunteer location) almost every driver I spoke to had just spent the entire night volunteering their time to multiple search and rescue trips.
People brought their own shovels and tools, anything to help. Families donating whatever food and clothes they could. These everyday heroes had a place on this canvas as well, befittingly at the heart of the mural.
Not to be forgotten, our most beloved “La Otra Frida” was also present. I can’t tell you how much joy filled my heart to see her. She is the rescue dog who captured everyone’s heart as she was sent into the most dangerous zones, among the rubble every day, finding people that were trapped and saving lives. The pride of México that brought so much hope, in a time of such devastation.
7-year-old Frida is helping find victims of Mexico's earthquakes. pic.twitter.com/FSpncOWUqW
— AJ+ (@ajplus) September 25, 2017
As I mentioned before, I had not been able to bring myself to look at any images from that day. I had survived it, seen it in person, but could not face it. Yet here I was, no longer able to avoid it.
They were playing a slideshow in the background and I could no longer escape it, I saw all the devastating images for the first time. At last, after weeks of holding it all in, I allowed the gentle tears to softly flow.
The moment I had long anticipated, paying my respects, had arrived. I made my way over to the impressive, towering altar. It was constructed with such purpose and precision.
I noticed that the way the altar was built also followed a cycle, first there was the destruction. I started in the section that held pieces of rubble, there were gloves, and materials used in rescue, broken pieces of concrete.
This was extremely powerful imagery, to see these items again brought back the reality of that day. I stood there staring at each item, remembering…I took a moment to then give my prayer…
Walking around the next section, the colors changed, the bright hues of life filled this space. The pictures and mementos here were all about life and the rescue, the resilience of the people.
My memories took me back to the first night of volunteering at the Zócalo. The line was wrapped around the plaza with volunteers, all of us waiting to be able to help.
Once inside the tent, the hours seemed to fly by. I didn’t know anyone, but none of that mattered.
We were all in this together, each person doing their part…united as ‘Fuerza México.’
As I continued to walk the altar, there was an overflow of beautiful cempasúchil (Marigolds) shaped in hearts and a central cross.
Everyone began to leave, I waited for the room to clear out and I gave the painting one last look, this time I noticed something I had not seen before…in the background, on the northern edge of Mexico, you can see a portion of a wall…
Now that I have gone through this experience with the people of Mexico City, I’ve come back with renewed pride, deeper clarity and appreciation for all of me that is Mexican, and all of me that is American.
I want to thank the El Paso Museum of Art, the Consulado General de México en El Paso and Centro Cultural Mexicano Paso del Norte, for always keeping their doors open and welcoming the borderland to experience the beauty of México.
I want to also especially thank the artist, Luís Colomo, who was in Juárez at the time of the tragedy, yet was able to capture everything we were all feeling. His creation spoke of all I was unable to say. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been able to participate in this event, from the altar display to the artwork, this was a night of healing for me.
As I posted on the day I departed from Mexico City: “un pedazo de mí se quedará en la ciudad de México y CDMX siempre será parte de mí – a piece of me forever stays in Mexico City and a piece of Mexico City will forever be a part of me…”