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My Daughter’s First Day of the Dead

Photograph by Jay Miranda

The Latina cultural imagination is multi-layered and shifting. This time of year, modern Latina moms might be preparing Day of the Dead altars like our moms before us—but sharing them on social media with friends and family. Traditions are passed on but they’re changed, too.

I’m fascinated by the ways that culture is absorbed by our children. My mom never sat me down to do a Día de Los Muertos craft, but I did watch her grieve for her dead. We didn’t practice Spanish; it was all that was spoken at home. Life is different in a multicultural family; you have to intentionally keep both cultures alive or one will fade into the background.

I feel compelled to actively preserve my culture. My 4-year-old daughter is young, but she’s understanding more and more about herself and her family. This year I’m making an effort to celebrate Día de los Muertos with her for the first time.

Finding little kid-friendly ways to tap into the magic of the holiday is my priority. My daughter loves the “Book of Life” film, an animated tale about traveling to the land of the remembered and back. We’re reading “I Remember Abuelito,” which has a beautiful page dedicated to a flurry of butterflies, like the ones the main character’s abuelito loved so much. We’ll pick flowers for our altar. And finally, we’re on a mission to find sugar skulls.

But mostly, it’s a time for storytelling.

My daughter was 2 years old when my father died, and my grandfather was gone a decade before she was born. The fact that my daughter won’t have memories with her grandfather is a stinging sadness, but she might yet have memories of their stories that I’ll share with her.

My heart tells me this November is an ideal time to do so.

There’s something in the autumnal air. The spookiness of Halloween is fun, but the sweet melancholy of Day of the Dead is what makes this time special for me. November also happens to be the birthday month for my father and grandfather.

My task is to share familial stories in age-appropriate ways and bring out their complexity over time. In a way, this Día de Los Muertos is the first time I'll tell my daughter ghost stories—ones about the ghosts in our family.

When my father died, my mom gave me several family photo albums (which, in my opinion, are so much better than any digital stream.) My plan is to sit with her and a bowl of sweet treats or a cup of chocolate caliente—or both! I’ll show her the photos of her grandfather and great-grandfather and tell her their stories. Who were these men?

Her great-grandfather was named Diego, and as a boy, he worked sowing and harvesting corn on farms. He worked very hard and saved as much money as he could, until one day he had enough to buy a calf. He took care of it and that calf became a cow, who then had a baby. Now great-grandfather had two cows. He was grateful for the milk and cheese. Over time, he had more cows, until one day he had the chance to buy his own house and some land. So great-grandfather sold every cow he had—for a home for great-grandmother and their family, including their youngest daughter—the woman my daughter knows as "Abuela."

Then there was grandfather Abraham. He was born on an island and one day, he knew he was leaving that island for a new home—a place he’d never visited. He stood under a palm tree and felt so nervous. But he was brave and got on the boat. He spent three nights at sea; the water was rough. He reached his new home and that’s where he’d meet Abuela. A few years later they would have a baby—me!

They’re simple stories with worlds of meaning behind them. I can only hope they inspire in her the same wonder that they do in me and that one day, we can remember our loved ones together.

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