Jorge and our “altar de muertos” – his mother taught us to observe this tradition
Did you see the movie Coco when it was released in 2017?
If so, you’ll remember that the story begins on November 1st, the night when the dead are supposedly able to visit the families they left behind. All they need do is follow the path of magical marigold petals that leads back to their homes in this realm.
A young boy named, Miguel is accidently transported to the “other side” and he discovers that not all the deceased are eligible to make the annual journey. If they are not remembered by their still-living family – if their photograph is not placed on the commemorative altar – they are forbidden to leave their world.
Miguel ‘s great-great grandfather is not among those honoured by the family. Miguel’s grandmother has repeatedly told him that her grandfather abandoned the family to seek fortune and fame as a musician. With a tear she added that his great grandmother, Coco, never recovered from her daddy’s abrupt departure. But when he meets the the old man, and hears his version of events, Miguel realises that Abuelo has been a victim of deceit.
Miguel’s epic effort to restore Great-great Grandpa’s reputation is a fiesta that could only be conjured up by Mexican imagination. No other nationality uses colour, movement and music with such aplomb. Rainbow-hued mythical animals, known as alebrijes, sweep the young hero out of imminent danger, the orange marigold path pulses and shimmers, mariachi music swells, bones clang against each other, googly eyes pop, tears gush forth and immense teeth grin with telescopic effect. Coco would be exhausting to watch if not for its overlying sweetness.
I also loved the director’s choice of voice actors. All of them are well-known and exemplary Latinos – Edward James Olmos, Gael García Bernal and Ana Ofelia Murguia – and my favourite Mexican writer, Elena Poniatowska Amor lent her voice to Miguel’s great-grandmother, Coco.
It is rare for movie distributers to return a production to the screen, but that is precisely what has happened with Coco. If you have not seen it – or you want to see it again – you can do so this week in most of Merida’s cinemas.
Coco is all about family – the importance of remembering and cherishing – a reminder to not forget and honour our departed loved ones. I recall watching my mother-in-law arrange her altar. “Do you really believe that the spirits will come here?” I sceptically asked her. She gave me one of her enigmatic smiles. “¿Quien sabe?” – “Who knows?” she replied as she touched each of the framed portraits. “But just in case they do, I want to have this feast waiting for my mother, father, aunts, uncles, and for my little girl who died 2 weeks after her birth.”
I realise now, that the altar was Doña Bertha’s way of dealing with the finality of death. She knew it could not be reversed, but maybe it could be suspended, if only for a day and a night?
And in that spirit, our family also embraces the tradition. I cover the sideboard with my hand-crocheted white table cloth, arrange flowers, and I polish the frames that hold the images of our dearly-departed. My sister Anne has joined my parents and Jorge’s, our assorted aunts and uncles, as well as our little boy who died when he was only three days old. Today I will place some mucbil pollo (commonly called pib) on the altar and pour a few shots too. And for Jorgito, I’ll lay down some chocolate.
After all, “¿Quien sabe?”