I was five years old when I pretended to ride the rail on the steps of the front porch of our
family’s house. As I climbed up the cement shoulder, straddling the square wooden pony, my
weight shifted a little too quickly and I lost my footing. At ten feet from the ground, with a burst of fear pulsating through my body, down, down, down I went, headfirst onto the bricks below.
As life gushed from three dirt-filled jagged wounds on my face, I cupped the red swirl of
darkness, tried to stand, then finally collapsed into the arms of my big brother Ben, who seemed to materialize from nowhere.
Although I came close to killing myself, all I have to remind me of that blood-filled day
are three faint scars on the upper left side of my face, and the memory of Ben rushing to my aid, rescuing me. He was my hero.
* * *
There’s a saying in Mexico that one can die three deaths: The first when the last breath is
taken and life ends; the second when the body collapses into the earth or becomes ashes; but the third is when one ceases to exist in the memories of those still living. In Mexico, an altar is built every year for the November 2 Day of the Dead celebration as an offering, in remembrance of the dead, and to prevent this third and most tragic death.
An altar has three levels: one symbolizing birth, one denoting life, and one representing
death. The first level, the one closest to the ground, is usually composed of flowers, sand, and
candles (though any of these can be found throughout the altar as well). This is the foundation
on which everything else is built — the solid, strong, common and connective tissue that can be found in all altars.
The second level includes all that the honoree loved in life, that which carried and
nourished him/her physically, spiritually or emotionally: books, records, favorite foods, jewelry,
and clothing. It also includes other reminders, which are sometimes personal possessions that
establish the relationship between the loved one and the altar maker. This second level
distinguishes each altar through personalizing, memorializing, and connecting the living with the dead in the cycle of life and beyond death.
The third, and most prominent, level is reserved for a large photograph of the honoree, which is the focus of the entire offering. This level creates the highest point, much like a pyramid and is considered the closest to the spirit of the dead. Family members and friends construct altars for those loved ones who have died, sometimes from accidents, sometimes due to illness or disease, but always unexpectedly, even when illness is terminal. As the saying in Mexico goes, one almost always knows exactly when and where they were born but no one will ever know exactly when or where they will die. The altar honors the dead despite how they may have lived or died.
* * *
I vividly remember the day I fell from the front porch as I ready myself for the November
2000 Day of the Dead community celebration at Self Help Graphics, a gallery in East Los
Angeles. Looking at my reflection in the mirror I notice the scars left from that childhood
accident so many years ago. Staring at them intently, I feel death’s presence around me — a
deep sadness and dread constricts my every breath. The nervousness I feel comes from nowhere.
I’ve never felt it before. While I see myself moving normally, I feel my heart beating through a
tar pit of fear, slowly, deliberately, barely. I swallow hard trying to push away the uneasiness
that takes root deep inside of me.
Using a black eyeliner pencil, I pull the skull from my flesh. Drawing walnut shapes
around my eyes, carefully following the bone structure of my sockets, I blacken the circles,
hiding the scars and other reminders of my imperfect life. Soon all I can see are the whites of
my eyes. Controlling my fear, breathing deeply, I steady my unsettled hands and continue.
Following the hollow of my jaw, I draw a line from my ears to the corners of my mouth. After
outlining my teeth on my face and blackening the soft tip of my nose, I cover my skin with a
thick, opaque white. With my face, including the faint scars completely covered by the mask of death, I take a final cleansing breath, swallow hard again, and then leave.
* * *
On that very day, maybe even at the very moment I prepared for the celebration,
somewhere in Oakland, where he lived, he was alone. Perhaps he was crying? Maybe he was
thinking about his pain? He was reflecting on his life. What brought him here to this world, to
this time? Did he have a good life? Perhaps he was smart? What happened? Did he look at
himself in the mirror above the sink, and study his face too, perhaps? Maybe he noticed his
wrinkles? Could the dark bags under his sunken eyes have carried his decision? In his solitude,
he may have closed those eyes, breathed slowly, deliberately, heavily, swallowed hard and
blinked back the memories.
* * *
I walk down the hall to the elevators that take me to my car. Wearing a yellow-orange
Mexican peasant blouse and fuchsia skirt — the colors that represent life’s joys in the celebration— I drive the five miles to the gallery where the festivities are starting. Because of the uneasiness I feel, I really want to get there and be over with it. I’m weary this year. Since the beginning of 2000, death has been closer to me than ever before.
Walking toward my car, I feel it again, a distinct pull that slows me, photographs the
moment, and horrifies me. I struggle with my soul — it wants to go home, yet I ought to be at
this celebration. It’s a cultural tradition, and after all, I’m known locally as La Reina del Dia De
Los Muertos, the default queen of the dead for the day. Still, I’m hesitant about attending. But
the celebration wouldn’t be quite the same without my presence, and so I convince myself that
everything is okay. However brief, I must make an appearance. Everyone is expecting me,
wants to see my costume this year, see how I’ll bring death with me. Once in my car, I adjust the crown of skeletons that dances on my head and turn the key to the ignition.
* * *
Alone in his Oakland apartment, perhaps he drew a hot bath to relax in? He disrobed,
tested the water with his arm? Maybe he remembered his time at Stanford Law School, where
doubt and hardship were pierced with hope and promise? Maybe his memories took him back to when he worked in the San Francisco’s DA’s Office and he defended a young man with the same name? He believed in that young man’s innocence, wanted to give him a chance for a better life. The boy was a reflection, no, an extension of him. Back in that bathroom he returned to himself as the reflected light of the blade blinded him in so many ways. Is that what happened? Could that have been?
* * *
As I arrive at the gallery, I notice a group of protesters. They carry signs that read,
“Christians celebrate LIFE not death.” I feel the crown of skeletons tighten and pierce my
forehead, creating more distress. The protestors claim to be here for the salvation of souls and
yet I am filled with fear at this grotesque display of religion. I rush through the throngs of
walking skeletons and quickly hone in on my children and their father. Pulling them close I
realize this has never happened before — a protest against the Day of the Dead. This adds to my anxiety and I feel the mask of death I’m wearing suffocating me. I really don’t want to be here.
Something is very wrong. I’m having a hard time focusing, breathing. I gather my two
sons. I build the strength to pass through the verbal assaults of the Christians as I make my way out. If I felt normal I would give them a Day of the Dead life lesson. I would tell them how they are protesting a celebration of life, not what their narrow minds assume, but instead I leave to find sanctuary in my home.
* * *
In his bathroom 500 hundred miles and a lifetime away from Los Angeles, he took a knife
in his right hand. He remembered he learned to say knife because it rhymed with life. A knife
takes a life. He learned how to speak English pretty quickly. Yes. He ran track and was the
student body Vice President in high school. He could have been president but supported his
friend instead. He came to the United States as an immigrant child of Mexico with nothing but
smarts and the drive poverty afforded. He was the seventh son, the prodigal child that had made it through so many obstacles and succeeded. And he was the sacrificial lamb that was held at an unrealistically and dangerously high pedestal. He became a self-crucified martyr, who carried the countless dreams of his family and ignored his own yearning only to be blamed for their shortcomings and his success. And I, I was his devout worshiper who believed despite it all.
This is true.
On Day of the Dead 2000, I enter the bathroom at home, looking for peace and quiet.
On Day of the Dead 2000, he faced the mirror looking for rest and peace.
I begin to wipe death off my face.
He slashed his left arm with the knife.
I slowly see my life mask re-emerge.
He submerged himself in the hot water — the better to bleed.
With hot water, I wash my death face off and return to life.
He embraced death and let his blood run.
In the split second before he passes, a memory flashes.
Ben was nearly five years old when he pretended he was Superman. He put a red cloth
around his neck and climbed a tall wooden pole. He leapt off the top, believing he could fly.
Down, down he went, on Day of the Dead, November 2000. In a blood-filled day, never
to be forgotten, my brother Ben took his life.
* * *
In October of 2001, I bought the desk that would serve as the skeleton for my altar. I
decided on the colors — red and white, the colors of his alma mater. All that month, I collected
objects that would fill the three levels and the wall above it. On the morning of the event, I
drove to the vast flower market in downtown Los Angeles, where I bought red and white roses.
My two sons and I built the altar one week prior to the celebration at the same gallery in
East Los Angeles that we had attended the year before. As Alain and Gian worked on the desk
that would be the second and third levels of the altar, I climbed up a tall A-frame ladder and
started hanging the black honeycomb material that served as a background. On the material I
hung a painting that depicted a figure wearing a skull-face mask with a question mark on the
forehead. A swirl of bright orange and red emanated from the torso in the painting, toward the top of the frame, to two small butterflies that appear to be flying away. Beside the painting, I hung a batik, the tie-dyed textile Ben gave me during the height of my hippie days in college and next to that, the image of La Virgen De Guadalupe, a symbol of hope as well as family, and our mother’s namesake patron saint.
Finally, with the background finished and the desk completely built and in place, I begin
to fill in the gaps. I add the law books Ben used to study at Stanford Law School. There are
pictures of us as children reading books together, studying for college and sharing Christmas
dinners. A candle on the desk illuminates a book on Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese communist who inspired Ben’s revolutionary ideology — which he then taught me.
The clothing, (a red Stanford tee shirt and red sweat pants) were the last things I saw Ben
wear when he stayed with me for a couple of days the summer before his death. We hiked up the winding trail to the Griffith Park Observatory in the Hollywood Hills. Looking out toward
downtown Los Angeles and East L.A., we felt so alive and empowered and we swore we’d
always be strong. His promise seemed like it could last forever.
I add a small wicker basket with god’s eyes that held our spiritual truths; turquoise beads,
the semi-precious stones that we both loved; and partially flattened glass marbles, pieces of a
game we played as children. With every item I place on the altar, my offering to Ben’s spirit, I
feel the connection between us strengthen, even beyond death. This is his Day of the Dead.
An orange Tootsie Roll pop rests next to a photo of Ben and me with our two sisters
Rachel and Esther. My oldest sister Rachel gave me the candy, a favorite treat they shared as
children, to add to the altar. As a young boy, Ben would shine shoes or collect bottles to make
money. He’d walk to the liquor store by himself just to buy the Tootsie pop for them to share.
He would take a few licks of the candy, and then give her the rest.
My younger son contributes a painting he made of tamales on a serving dish, the last food
he remembers his uncle eating, and adds it to the altar. I put a three-legged bowl for burning
sage and copal, to cleanse the area and welcome his spirit. I finally place the statement I wrote
for the community to read to know more about the person who inspired this altar. This is a
It is now November 2, 2001, the day of the celebration. It is exactly a year since Ben
died, and I’ve left the most prominent spaces for his photograph and a white, potted orchid.
Orchids are very beautiful and fragile flowers. They need warmth, sunlight, and to be
nurtured with lots of love and attention. If left by themselves for too long, they won’t survive. I place his high school graduation photograph next to the orchid. I add one last small Polaroid photograph of us as children sitting on a sofa, me with bandages still on my face from the fall I took off the front porch; Ben in a Superman tee shirt. He comforted me then, knowing the pain of an abrupt fall and accidental wounds. I sit with the altar, staring at it for a while, reconnecting with each object, feeling his presence in each, then, finally, I add the red and white roses throughout, strewing the floor with pools of red petals.
On Day of the Dead 2001, I finally publicly honor and remember my beloved brother
Ben, as I wanted to for the last terrible year. Although he requested there be no end of life
service, no memorial for him, I need to come to terms with his death, put closure and find
resolution if possible. And so the celebration becomes his funeral.
“I knew him.”
“He was such a good man.”
“He was so smart.”
“Oh my, he was such a young man.”
“Did he have children?”
“What a waste.”
“He worked so hard.”
“I feel bad for his family.”
The responses overwhelm me. As the visitors and participants in this celebration read the
words written about Ben, they become aware of the man he was. He was so much more than his final moments. He was so much more than my brother. And as my family and I approach the altar, taking it in with the candles, incense, and reverently whispered comments, we are
brokenhearted once again. Any type of wound may scar over and heal, but the pain of his
suicide will exist as long as I remember. I know I will always hurt for Ben.
Life, in the only form it could take, has returned. I’ve learned to understand that I didn’t
make his choice or final decision. I’ve learned to accept partial answers, but mostly that I’ll
never truly know why. I couldn’t rescue Ben, but I can carry his memory with me. I always
acknowledge his death, but more importantly, I honor and celebrate his life daily.
I often go back in time and visit Ben in my memories to find comfort in what I can relive
and relearn. And again Ben rescues me by what he taught. I constantly search for his spirit in
my life as well as in my sons’ lives. And when I’m strong enough or want to feel his presence, I
study my reflection carefully, allowing myself to feel the anguish when, in that bittersweet flash
of red, I see Superman flying in my eyes.