Día de los Muertos was not a day my family celebrated. The dead were far away ghosts, stuck in a silent trunk of memories too painful to open. The first time I accompanied my grandmother to a cemetery in Villa Acuña, I was nine years old.
My grandfather crammed us into his avocado-green station wagon for the trip to Del Rio, Texas. He filled every available space with luggage, boxes of gifts, and bags of used clothing. I sat with my feet propped up on Glad trash bags filled with towels my grandmother had snagged on clearance at Sears. I didn’t mind being squished in the back because I sang along to every tune on the radio until we came to the stretch past El Paso where we lost reception. My grandmother enveloped herself in a quilt of privacy. She might as well have been alone.
Blanca Estela, my mother, dreaded the visits to her hometown because of the humidity and the mosquitoes. She wished one of the boys would take her place, but her eight brothers found excuses not to squeeze into the car or ride the train, our family’s preferred travel method because we could use the bathroom anytime we wanted. The day after arrived at my tia Alicia’s house in Del Rio, we checked our birth certificates and crossed the Tex-Mex border to spend the day with my tía Eloisa in Villa Acuña. These visits meant long hours in the houses of my grandmother’s sisters. We played Bingo while my grandmother and her sisters gossiped about the neighbors and the changes in town. I listened for the raspada cart’s tinkling bell and heavy crunch of its unsteady wheels. I didn’t mind sharing the sweetness of guava syrup over ice with bees that suckled each bottle’s nozzle.
Before dinner my grandmother announced that she was off to see her children. Everyone knew she meant Roberto and Alma Rosa, her two infants who died shortly after gasping their first breaths. I was tired of my Mexican cousins making fun of my funny, pocha accent, their childish comments on my darker skin, and their incessant questions about Hollywood movie stars. My grandmother took the path towards the campo santo and I ran after her. She didn’t object.
We walked passed the placita to the meager campo santo where my grandmother’s babies were buried. Two makeshift crosses marked the graves. My grandmother talked to her children, mumbled prayers, and thumbed her rosary. She tugged weeds and adjusted the wooden crosses. She apologized for her neglect of their modest graves.
A cruel wind blew heat in my face. I licked my lips to taste the dust. My grandmother unwrapped a quesadilla in tin foil. She gave me half. We ate without ceremony, without acknowledging each other or the food. I wasn’t hungry, but I knew it was important to eat the butter and cheese soaked quesadilla before we left the cemetery. The gesture was a humble offering to the two graves.
I stared at the dry earth, the graves of my aunt and uncle. But I preferred thinking of Robert and Alma Rosa as Grandmother’s stars. At night, we’d sit on our front porch in California and my grandmother would point to the twin stars of Castor and Pollux and say, ‘those are my two children.’