When John died I decided I was going to celebrate Day of the Dead for him.
At the time it was a way to keep him alive. Day of the dead is the perfect holiday not just because of the symbolic importance of it but also because it was our favorite holiday in Mexico.
We’ve had a respect for the way people here and how they handle the dead since we moved here. In the first couple months of living in Vista Hermosa there was the murder of a woman near our house. We heard the gunshots that day and later on I walked through the crime scene. Within hours there was a party set up at the house of the dead, and it lasted for 9 days.
At first we thought the shots were just part of the party. We didn’t understand someone had been killed until we saw the funeral procession a few days later. Our close friend explained to us that in rural areas, it’s common for a 9 day party to happen as soon as the person dies. With the party comes everyone who knew that person with gifts, help around the house and good vibes to help those still living left behind by the death. We found it incredibly touching.
After John was murdered, I had many people tell me they kept a candle lit in their family shrine for him.
We were well known in Acapulco, respected and loved by many. We couldn’t leave the house without seeing a friendly face, smiling and waving and we loved every second of it. So when these people told me they kept a candle burning for him, it really meant a lot.
When I decided to celebrate Day of the Dead I expected to do so in Acapulco until Thaddeus Russell suggested I go to Patzcuaro, Michoacan.
That’s basically the Day of the Dead mecca in Mexico, thousands of people annually travel there to celebrate their loved ones. It took awhile to decide, but I eventually decided he was right and planned on Michoacan for the end of October.
If I’m being honest, I picked the place I did exactly because it is the tourist thing to do in Mexico for Day of the Dead. My previous nearly 4 years here we did very little tourist things and there’s a lot of experiences John missed out on because we were always too busy working, too busy surviving to truly enjoy the place we moved to.
After the murder my friends helped keep me busy by pursuing the tourist things in Acapulco I’d never managed to do because I was too busy.
This included a trip to the island known as La Roqueta and riding on a jet ski. I did them because I was painfully aware of all the things John wouldn’t experience. I was determined to live.
So at the end of October I traveled (pretty fucking far, it was exhausting) to Michoacan to celebrate the tourist way.
We stayed in the nearby city Morelia for the duration of it but took a visit to Patzcuaro and the island there known as Janitzio on November 2nd, which is the day for the adults to come back from the dead.
On the first we built our altar.
For the occasion John’s Nana (step grandma and favorite person in his family) came to help me celebrate. She repeatedly said it was our way of celebrating the lives we lost so we could move on with our own lives. For me it was the funeral I never got. John had a memorial service, in Ohio far away from me. During that memorial I was still in hiding in Acapulco.
So Nana and I built the altar at the place that Henza was renting until a few days ago. We figured that it was appropriate if all the lore was true. If John was really going to return, we wanted him to go first to a safe place with a friend he loved.
In the days before we collected the things for the altar.
Everything from tiny sugar sculptures of skulls and tacos to the marigold flowers that are traditionally used to attract spirits with their color and smell. Marigolds for me were fitting because they were his favorite flower, other than marijuana of course. He grew those same orange puffs in his Mom’s garden as a kid and it was his first adventure into gardening. For those that knew him well, his passion was in growing cannabis and cryptocurrency.
Nana brought his favorite candy, a bag of Red Vines and over 50 photos of him, us and other people who had been lost. I bought a bag of red gummy bears, because he loved all things red and sweet especially that candy here in Mexico. The whole idea is to make the altar as a landing place, with flowers to attract and food offerings to satisfy the spirits while they reside in our world for another day.
We bought 3 candles, one for John, one for his grandfather (Nana’s late husband) and one for her parents. We lit those when we finished building the altar and let them burn until they went out. We also lit the candle on a tiny sugar cake, which was intended for celebrating John’s birthday which was in the beginning of November.
Building the altar was incredibly cathartic.
I don’t know if the spirits return like they say but I do know that it is incredibly helpful for the living left behind to go through this process. Once the altar is built the only thing left to do is to live the day and have as much fun as possible. For some this means getting drunk at a gravesite, for us it meant an adventure and lots of Mexican markets.
Stateless Documentary was there to celebrate and capture all of it and I’m glad they were.
It made it a proper celebration and it is now recorded which I think is important in keeping his memory alive.
One of the best aspects for me of this was having around the people I love, both old and new.
My best friends came to the occasion, as did Nana. I can honestly say it wouldn’t have meant the same if she weren’t there, as she’s a funny woman full of great wisdom. I often say everyone should have a Nana.
Nana was right when she said it was a transitional period, a sign for all of us to move on. It doesn’t mean we need to forget, but it means that we can’t stop living our lives for those who aren’t with us anymore. She got the chance to meet my boyfriend, who has quickly become an incredibly important person in my life.
My boyfriend being there was likely one of the best parts of celebrating.
It was beautiful how he encouraged me to celebrate John. He went with me shopping at markets to find the outfit I wore for both Halloween and Day of the Dead. Together we picked out sugar sculptures, went for flowers and more. He went out of his way to be therefor the celebrations, even though he had a play demanding his time and it meant a lot.
You would expect that when starting a new relationship after your last love was murdered in front of you that one might want to avoid what happened. The instinct is to try and get the mind off of the past. What I appreciate about my boyfriend is how he has encouraged me to celebrate the life of John, even though it can bring tears and sadness. He respects what I’ve been through in my past, and for that he has become a big part of my future.
So Nana was right, this event was the cue to move on.
I won’t forget what I’ve been through ever, but I can start building my own life on my own terms. What I will do is do the building of the altar annually because it is so cathartic. As I lose more people I love (as is bound to happen, we all die) I will add them to the altar as well.
If you’ve lost someone you really loved, even if its a dog, I recommend celebrating Day of the Dead. For me it brought closure I thought was impossible, and that is priceless.