When I was little, Sundays were the most exciting days of the week because my grandfather and I would visit the zoo and eat ice cream. As long as I remember, Sunday was ice cream and zoo day. But Day of the Dead was the most anticipated day of the year because my grandfather and I would visit my grandmother at the cemetery. On this day, we did not wear costumes or knock on our neighbors’ doors asking for candies. Instead, we commemorated, remembered, and grieved our deceased family members in order to keep their memories alive.
One unanticipated Sunday altered my entire life. My grandfather had been sick for a while, but I believed he was going to get well and continue with our Sunday tradition. That particular Sunday, I woke up because of the commotion I heard from his room. When I went to see what was happening, my family members were crying and weeping. I thought he was asleep so I tried to wake him up by shaking him, but my grandfather did not move. He had died early in the morning.
His name was Alejandro Delgado Jimenez. He was born in Guatemala on January 15, 1906. He was a peasant, janitor and gardener. He didn’t know how to read or write. Whenever he needed to sign papers, he would use his right thumb as his personal signature. He worked most of his life and stopped only after he didn’t have enough strength. He was my abuelito.
My grandfather lived with us because my mother took care of him once he was too old to work. When I was about seven years old, my mother owned a small snack store. She sold different kinds of delicious candies. My favorite ones were botonetas or m&m’s. Each time my mother would prepare lunch; she would ask my grandfather to watch the store. My sister and I would wait patiently for such a time. Because he would take a nap, instead of taking care of the store, and I would quietly sneak into the store, slide the counter top, open a transparent container, and grab as much botonetas as my little hand could carry.
Once out of the store, my sister and I would run to our hiding place. As soon as we were safe, I would divide the shares and enjoy the goods. However, within a few months, my mother’s store closed down. My days as a botonetas’s thief had ended. Sometimes I wonder if I had anything to do with the downfall of her business!
When my mother realized she wasn’t able to sustain our family in Guatemala, she resolved to migrate to the United States. Her small business had failed. And although she was a seamstress, her income was not enough to provide for our family. She heard the US was a land of prosperity and opportunity. Although the journey was risky and costly, she was determined to give her family a better future. I was eight years old and my sister was four when she set out in search for a better life. I cannot recall the day she left. I only remember that one day she was with us, and the next she disappeared.
When I next saw my mother again, after almost six years, I couldn’t believe it. She was standing right in front of me and I couldn’t say anything to her. My sister ran to embrace her. I stood still. I was trying to grasp the idea that she was real. It was not one of my many dreams about her return. Then finally, I pretended to be happy and run to her as well. But I was not happy. My grandfather had just passed away. I had buried him two days before.
I cannot forget the day of his funeral. During the one-day mourning, his coffin remained in our living room. Our neighbors came to say goodbye to Don Alejo. They knew him because of his afternoon walks. Every afternoon, he would walk from our home to a tree at the end of the street where we lived. He never missed his afternoon walks. Occasionally, I would join him walking to the tree and back. We would stop for a while, look at the distant mountains and walk back home. He was never in a hurry like I was. I just wanted to walk to the tree and come back home right away. Perhaps he perceived his surroundings in a way that I did not. Perhaps he wanted to remember and appreciate time. I miss those walks.
The following day, at his burial, I witnessed the extermination of ice cream and zoo Sundays. On my way to the cemetery, I kept thinking my grandfather was asleep and that he was going to wake up. The cemetery was a few miles away from our home. It was one of the longest journeys I’ve ever traveled. With each step, I felt a sharp pain in my heart. I wished to never reach my destination.
Once we arrived at the place where his body would remain for a while, I remembered all the times we had visited the cemetery together. On the Day of the Dead celebration, the last day of October, my grandfather and I, as many other Guatemalans, would go to the cemetery to visit our deceased family members. It was such a colorful day, full of excitement but also sadness. It was a day to remember those who were no longer with us.
It was a day to celebrate their lives and their memory. It was a day to be glad for life but also be in solidarity with those who no longer had it. My grandfather and I visited my grandmother on several occasions. While I would play and jump on top of the graves, my grandfather would clean and decorate my grandmother’s grave.
I did not have the opportunity of knowing my grandmother or enjoying her company as I did my grandfather’s. According to my mother and her siblings, my grandmother was not the most loving or kind person. But she raised strong and hard-working children. When my grandmother found out that my mother was pregnant (with me), she exiled my mother and gave her such a beating that my mother hasn’t forgotten it to this day. Eventually, my grandmother forgave my mother’s “mistake” (merely me!) and learned to love it. My mother often says that when I was born, my grandmother changed. She became more loving and kind. She became my primary “nanny” since my mother had to go to work. She would take me everywhere. When she would do her grocery shopping at the farmers market, my mother says that I would come back with a red face because I would grab (steal) tomatoes from the local vendors and eat them. Maybe that’s the reason I enjoy eating tomatoes. My grandmother died when I was 1.5 years old.
My mother often tells the story of the day she began to lose her mother. It was early in the morning when a group of people began banging on the door of my grandparents’ house. Everyone was sleeping. My grandfather got up to see who was outside, my mother grabbed me because I began to cry and my grandmother began to ask, “Who is it?” It took my grandfather a while to find the candle and the lighter, and when he finally opened the door, there was no one outside. There was no trace, no one, and nothing. My grandmother woke up that morning with a pain in her stomach. She died a month later from liver cancer. They spent all their savings in doctors and hospitals even in witch doctors. But my grandmother never got well.
I do not know what my grandmother looked like because we do not have any photos of her. But I like to imagine that every time I look at my mom, I’m looking at her. My mother became her primary caregiver during this painful time. My mother often says that during the first weeks of her passing, she could not believe that her mother was dead. Every time she would come back from work, she would imagine that her mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner.
Once again, I was at the cemetery with my grandfather but this time we were not visiting my grandmother, I was taking him to his own grave. The most painful memory of his burial took place when his children lowered the coffin into the hole dug in ground. I started crying uncontrollably, and for the first time I realized he was dead. I kept screaming “abuelito, abuelito!” Eventually he was completely covered with dirt. I have not seen him ever since.
On this Day of the Dead as it has been for the past 15 years, I won’t be able to visit my grandfather and grandmother’s graves. I won’t be able to take them flowers and their favorite dishes. I won’t be able to decorate their graves. I won’t be able to jump onto their graves. I won’t be able to share this commemoration with the thousands of Guatemalans who still remember those who are no longer with us. I wont be able to be with them.
But I won’t wear a costume or go trick-or-treating either. I will simply say a prayer and ask God to give me the opportunity to one day again meet my grandmother and have ice cream and visit the zoo with my grandfather.