Last year, I took a solo weekend trip to meet up with one of my best friends to attend Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. Dia de los Muertos is something I’ve always found fascinating. In American culture, we’re so much in denial of death, while this Mexican tradition throws it right in your face. I decided to participate in honor of my grandma Margaret, a proud Mexican-American woman who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2011.
I spent most of my childhood to teenage years growing up in my grandma Margaret’s home in Antioch, California. My grandma was a gem. Told it like it is, funny, and she had a giving heart. She loved dancing and music, but particularly her Mexican classics. I remember how I would look at her crazy when she would play her music loudly, singing along in Spanish, and dancing throughout the house. I didn’t understand any of it, but she didn’t care. She was proud to be a Mexican woman, and I learned to take pride in the fact that I am too.
Grandma Margaret had a way of bringing everyone together. She went all out for holidays (the type that would keep the lights up all year). Her house was stocked with all the movies, board games, books, dolls, and a big backyard to keep all the kids occupied. She collected magnets from all around the world and always asked people to bring one back when traveling. She took me on my very first cruise along the Mexican Riviera. It was cool having her by my side as my translator. My biggest regret is never learning Spanish from her.
I remember when I brought my first boyfriend over to meet her and how she cursed him out in Spanish and kept it moving (whatever she said, she was right). She hated the Taco Bell chihuahua (the overt racism companies could get away within the 90s was crazy). I don’t think she would be a fan of a particular president right now, either (VP of the American Postal Worker’s Union in the East Bay Area, btw). For my grandpa’s 75th birthday, she hired a mariachi band and a young Mexican stripper… the stripper part didn’t go over too well with everyone but damn, what a memory lol.
She never had a problem talking about death years before she was even diagnosed with cancer. She surprised my cousins and me once while visiting the cemetery, pointing out her name on a headstone next to her father’s. Her father served in the US Army and was captured and detained as a POW in Germany, never returning home alive. Her plan was to be buried with him when her time came. She would joke about haunting my cousins and me after her death. She also loved horror movies (pretty sure she’s the reason why I had reoccurring nightmares starring Chucky up until my adulthood).
I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when I received a phone call I’ll never forget. My grandma told me she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had a year to live. At the time, I was attending college full time, working 40 hours a week, but I was still struggling in many ways. I put myself thousands of dollars in debt to make my parents proud, without any real plan after finishing college. To top it off, my roommate and I weren’t getting along, and he coincidentally moved out on me the day I found out about my grandma’s cancer diagnosis.
Before this moment, I never experienced losing someone I loved to death. I didn’t know what exactly to expect, but I knew that my life was going to change forever. The reality of the situation didn’t hit me until I came home and saw how cancer changed my grandma physically. Nothing can prepare you for seeing someone you’ve known your entire life look different due to a terminal illness.
Aside from the physical changes, what stood out to me more was how her spirit was untouched. I watched my grandma become the bravest woman I’d ever known. She traveled to Germany to connect with her father just a couple of months after her diagnosis. We also lost my aunt unexpectedly that same year before her death, but she led us through it all. Honestly, her calm demeanor set the tone for everyone around her in her last year. Looking back, I feel like I was more afraid of losing her than she was scared of dying. I believe that she was at peace with the next phase, and I was there to witness how brave she was until the very end.
My grandma’s death was one of 5 family deaths I’ve experienced within the past decade. For so long, I couldn’t even talk about her without breaking down. Like most life difficulties, it gets better with time (and therapy). My paternal grandfather recently passed away, and I’m still in the process of grieving his loss. One important thing I’ve taken away from all these bad experiences is that there’s no growth without pain.
I fully accept the reality that I’m not guaranteed a full life, and neither are the people I love. Death is a fact of life for us all, no matter who you are or what you have. Dia de los Muertos is an excellent reminder that just because the people you love are gone, it doesn’t mean you can’t keep them alive through memories.
Dia de los Muertos (or Dia de Muertos) is an annual Mexican tradition that’s gone on for thousands of years, dating back to the Aztecs. Families and friends participate by building altars, or ofrendas, at home or in cemeteries to welcome back the souls of the dead for their yearly return on November 1st and 2nd. Monarch butterflies represent the souls of loved ones returning. The first day is in celebration of children and infants, and the second is for adults. Water and favorite foods are placed upon the ofrendas to quench the dead’s thirst and hunger after their long journey back to the living world, along with pictures, candles, flowers (marigolds), toys, sugar skulls, and more.
The Hollywood Forever event is one of the biggest celebrations held outside of Mexico. Due to covid, there was no event this year, which is unfortunate because I was looking forward to going and even dressing up this time. This place is HUGE, by the way. Plenty of people, vendors, colors, music to make you forget you’re even in a graveyard. It honestly didn’t hit me until later in the day after a margarita (or two) when I thought to myself, “Damn, I’m really in a cemetery eating a churro and drinking a margarita AT NIGHT!”.
Here are some of the photos I took last year…