¿Quien sabe? – Who knows?

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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?”

Published by Changes in our Lives

I am originally from Canada but have lived in Mexico since 1976. My husband is from Merida, Yucatan and we raised our family here. We both worked for many years at Tecnologia Turistica Total (TTT), the tourism, language and multimedia college we founded for local and international students. Now retired, we enjoy spending time with family and friends, My other interests include spending time with freinds, reading, painting, cooking and travel.

13 thoughts on “¿Quien sabe? – Who knows?

    1. Yes Frances, I am in Merida. I will return to Canada next year but I’m not quite sure when. The tradition of making an altar for the dead is not what we learned when we were kids at Holy Trinity, but this is the value of travel and life experiences – it adds so much richness.

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  1. Joanna, and a shout out for Marco Antonio Solis playing Ernesto de la Cruz in the Spanish language version of the film. That version with El Buki is also fantastic! 🙂

    Thank you and Jorge for sharing your altar with us, for helping us reconnect with our own traces of unique footprints that led us here today to dance in this divine mystery. Deeply grateful.

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    1. Harold, you are kind to always show such enthusiasm for my writing .Yes the Marco Antonio Solis version of “Remember Me” is delightful. Although I do love El Buki too! I also like your description of death – a divine mysterious dance – it is not an end. It seems more of a “passing on” to a different kind of existance.

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  2. What a lovely tradition this is. Your post brought a tear to my eyes.

    I’ve only done a mini-altar once. My Dad died on October 29, 2010. Being so close to Dia de los Muertos, it felt natural to make an altar for him a few years ago. A Mexican friend even brought us a pib that his wife had made. Chuck’s Dad died on October 22, 2016. So we have two fathers to remember and it feels so natural to do so since the anniversary of their deaths is at the same time as this holiday. We will have to make an altar next year.

    Is it possible to buy a pib? Or does everyone make them at home. I’ve never seen them in the stores but then I’ve never really looked.

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    1. Hi Joanne… I find that making the altar makes me feel more “at peace”. Is it because my mother IS present and helping me with my assimilation of my loved ones’ passing? Quien sabe…, As for the pib, there are people who take orders but of course they have finished doing so for this year. HOWEVER, I happen to have an extra one. It is in the fridge “waiting for you”. Call me if you’d like to come pick it up. We cannot possibly eat all we have.

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      1. Yes, it was a wonderful peaceful thing to make my Dad’s altar. I won’t take your pib. You can share it with your family. I’ll make arrangements ahead of time next year.

        A special, extra hug to you this year as you remember your sister Anne.

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  3. Thanks for this lovely post, Joanna. John and I LOVED “Coco.” Although we do not speak Spanish very well, we understood just about everything about the movie. Really wonderful film. I hope that bringing it back every year becomes a tradition. Your mother-in-law was right. “Quien sabe?” xoxo

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  4. The photo of your altar is beautiful. This celebration is indeed a beautiful custom: Growing up in the Irish culture, we had our own customs when someone passed to the eternal reward. I well remember as a child the wakes when the deceased after embalming was laid out in the living room of his or her residence and people took turns keeping vigil for two or three days and nights until burial. We also had customs to ward off a premature demise such as never recycling the ribbon from a basket of funeral flowers after the event was over and never opening an umbrella under a roof. I find every culture has its own beautiful traditions and some that are strange as well as interesting.

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