For eighteen years, I spent every Sunday afternoon at a little green house with a faded yellow fence. It was there that I got my first scrapes and bruises chasing my cousins around, pausing for gulps of cold Jumex mango juice in the Texas heat. That house on the West Side of San Antonio was where my grandma made me tortillas con mantequilla in the morning and my grandpa led me up to the roof to pick lemons in the spring.
Every holiday, after every birth and every death, my family convened at my grandparents’ home. So after my grandma Josefina Peña died in 2012, followed fourteen months later by my aunt Blanca De Los Santos, we frequently found ourselves seated around the kitchen table, trying to find familiarity and comfort amid confusion and pain. But the house was loud in its emptiness.
If that house represents the bones of my giant Mexican family—its frame expanding as my grandpa’s construction projects made room for eight kids—then my grandma was its beating heart. With her gone, she couldn’t hover over us and make sure everyone was fed (even if they were already full). She couldn’t pass on the recipes she had memorized long ago. She wasn’t there for the gossip sessions or to dole out the perfect dicho when someone needed advice.
The holidays were especially hard. My aunt was the one who snuck me my first sip of alcohol on New Year’s Eve, the person who kept everyone up by the fire late at night reciting Sixteen Candles quotes. She could fill the room with her laughter. I don’t think things have ever felt truly normal since they passed. In the wake of their deaths, some of us grew closer and others split apart. We all just tried our best to carry on.
Still, I am reminded of my grandma and aunt at every milestone, constantly thinking about the parts of me they would never know. And so this year—the year my grandma would’ve turned 90 and my Tia Blanca would be 50 years old—in an effort to bring them closer, I decided to honor them through my first día de los muertos altar. I want to invite them into my apartment—my first real place I could call my own after college. I want to show them the person I’ve become since graduating from high school and the University of Texas, since I became a journalist and started writing about my culture. I want to introduce them the person they would’ve known if they’d had more time.
After my grandma died, I worried a lot about my Spanish. Every time I slipped up or started to get rusty, I felt like I was losing a little part of her. I started to look back to other bits and pieces of my heritage, retroactively finding things we could’ve shared or talked about. I memorized the Spanish songs she liked and dug deeper into Selena and Freddy Fender. I re-read Sandra Cisneros for the first time since seventh grade, that house on Mango street feeling more like home than ever. I learned about curanderas, the Mexican folk healers who “cleansed” sick people using an egg the same way my grandma did when I had a cold. I began finding answers to questions I hadn’t gotten the chance to ask her, but it also felt one-sided. I felt closer to her, but it was impossible for her to get any closer to knowing me. Ultimately, that’s why I decided to build an altar: it offered a chance to bring her back into my world—an invitation for her and my aunt to get to know me as I am now.
As a second-generation Mexican-American, certain traditions or customs—like the Spanglish that comes more naturally than my Spanish—were only passed down in bits and pieces. So though I knew about día de los muertos growing up, I didn’t celebrate it. Throughout my childhood, I heard about my family, long before I was born, celebrating the holiday with trips back to my grandma’s hometown of Anáhuac, Mexico. There, they would head down to the cemetery where kids sold brushes and buckets of water to clean the tombstones and vendors peddled elote, aguas frescas and sugar cane.
When my family couldn’t make the trip, they would construct an altar at home. The multi-tiered altars are meant as an offering, or ofrenda, to invite the spirits of loved ones to visit on November 2. Lit candles and cempasuchitl (marigolds) guide the way to the land of the living, and any meaningful belongings or trinkets are meant to make the souls feel at home. Along with photos to honor the dead, their favorite food and drinks surround the altar to quench their hunger and thirst after the journey from their resting places.
I’d toyed with the idea of building an altar in college, but four years of dorms and shared spaces didn’t offer much place for ceremony. I don’t know if I believe I’ll really be able to invite my grandma and aunt back to the land of the living, but I thought that once the dust of my move had settled, I could finally try. I committed to making an altar in September, a little over a month after I unpacked and organized my little one bedroom apartment in Austin. I started making mental notes to bring little trinkets and photos back with me when I visited San Antonio. A few weeks before the holiday, I met with my aunts to get a better idea of my Tia Blanca’s favorite foods and help me remember things I’d forgotten about her.
I began the process in early October. Getting my grandma and my aunt’s favorite food and drinks was easy—a bottle of Big Red was essential, it’s the drink that often adorns their graves and that each of them were buried with. As a kid, my grandma would sometimes give me a few dollars to buy her one from the shoe shop down the street, making sure I had enough left over to buy myself a paper bag full of little chiclets from their candy dispenser. I also included a cup of Bill Miller’s sweet tea—the very first drink my aunt would buy when she came to San Antonio from Austin. There are also tortillas and corn husks for tamales, which my family tries to make every Christmas, even though without my grandma they don’t taste the same. There are a couple of sweets from a panaderia, yellow and white crumbling cookies with sprinkles I remember sharing with my grandma.
Then, in a few different memory boxes and recycled H-E-B bags, I started to sort through some of their belongings, finding the things I knew I wanted to display. For my aunt, I put up her ring. It’s a gold Egyptian cross that I picked out from some old jewelry at my grandma’s house without knowing it once belonged to Tia Blanca. Next to a picture of her from her high school’s senior retreat, there’s a ticket stub to a Santana concert to remind me of how much she loved music, even though her singing voice is affectionately remembered by my whole family as “horrible.” There’s a postcard from a trip to Guadalajara that was never sent, and a tube of lipstick in a shade of red that she sports in so many old photos. Because she lived in Austin for most of my life, I don’t have many keepsakes or trinkets of hers, just things I collected by chance. What I mostly have are a lot of stories, ones about the times she snuck out, the parties she had, the boys she made fall in love with her. I’d put them on the altar if I could.
It was harder to choose which of my grandma’s mementos to include on the altar. Years before her death, I had made a habit of collecting little knick knacks and keepsakes of hers, things that would remind me of her dichos or a trip we took together. Inside a red jewelry pouch, I have a few of my grandmother’s necklace pendants, buttons, and brooches.
I nestled a couple of handwritten notes among the flowers. One had been tucked inside a little prayer box, a plea that her cancer would disappear—the other was from the day of her funeral. It’s the rough draft of the version she’s buried with, written in Spanish and covered in scribbles because I wasn’t sure I could write anything meaningful enough to leave with her forever. There’s also a little iron-on patch from the Hoover Dam, a souvenir from our family trip from San Antonio to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. My grandma didn’t speak English, but she knew enough to make a few “dam”/”damn” jokes as we drove past it. Underneath a framed depiction of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle and a brown beaded rosary from her house, there’s one of her denim dresses. I only saw my grandma wear pants a handful of times. Unless it was particularly cold, she would be in one of the dresses still hanging in her house, some floral, some gingham. But I remember her best in her denim dresses.
These items reminded me of a woman who, up until her death, had been a constant in my life. She was my gramito, the constant fixture next to my Grandpa Carlos. Both of them were always ready to drop everything for me and my sister, even if it was just driving to Handy Andy to pick us up some cans of Pringles. The little five foot tall woman was always in my corner, ready to defend me against the world. After her death, I tried to hold onto all the ways she was still a part of me: the Spanish words on my tongue, the Mexican lullabies still committed to memory, the tamales, the tortillas, the spoonfuls of arroz con leche. She comes to mind with each sip of her favorite Big Red soda, the sting on my teeth after the first cold bite of paletas de piña o nuez, and when I glance at the rose tattooed on my wrist. She would’ve hated the tattoo, but it reminded me of the rose bush she grew outside her house. The permanent ink was the only way to guarantee she’d still be there at my college graduation or the day I get married. My altar is decorated with the traditional cempasuchitl, but there’s also a single blush pink rose.
I was 16 when my grandma died, a junior in high school who was just beginning to map out plans for my future. I was weeks away from my first boyfriend, months away from my driver’s license and college acceptance letters, and more than a year away from the walk across the stage at high school graduation. Those were guarantees to me, events I knew she’d be there for the same way I once knew that she and my grandpa would be waiting for me in the exact same parking spot every day after elementary school.
So even after her diagnosis, even after she lost the ability to speak, even after the priest delivered her last rites, I never planned a future without her. It didn’t make sense to. Even the night she died, I purposely left her house to meet up with friends. I thought I was protecting her, keeping her safe for myself and everyone else. There was just no way she could leave if I wasn’t there too.
The year leading up to my grandma’s death, my aunt was waging a secret war against cancer that had returned and spread. I don’t remember when I first learned about it, but I know that she made it easy for me to forget it. Any time she’d come down from Austin, she’d have the whole room crying from laughter at her stories, inside jokes, or references to John Hughes movies. Even when it was clear she was hurting, it’s like she felt it was her job to show us how to have a good time.
She saw what my grandma’s death had done to us, so she kept a lot of her pain a secret until it was too late. We’d barely had time to recover before we made our way into the same funeral home, kneeled down in the same pews, and tossed handfuls of dirt at the same cemetery, just one plot over from my grandma.
Scrolling through Tia Blanca’s Facebook now, it’s jarring to see pictures of her at Mount Bonnell or Inks Lake. I spent my adolescence waiting to see her during holidays or summer breaks, when she and my cousins came down to visit. Now, I’m living thirty minutes away from where she did, and I wish that I would’ve had the chance to stop by.
Every year since their deaths I’ve tried to find some kind of sign that they are still with me, that I would see them or feel their presence. I still haven’t, but even just bringing these pieces of them into my home this year made them feel real for the first time in a long time. Part of me is always scared that one day I’ll lose my memories of them the same way I forgot my grandma’s voice. But with each item I placed on the altar, with every object that I told people about, it all came back. I revisited our trips and our holidays together, I returned to certain Sundays or birthdays. I ran through everything they’d missed, the moments that I’d been desperate to tell my grandma about right after they happened. I thought about how she would’ve reacted to me going to Austin for college, or what she would’ve told me when I left the country to visit Brazil and Spain.
I’d love to think that we’d have only gotten closer as I got older, though I have no real way of knowing for sure. Building this altar gave me a chance to learn more about them, and rediscover things I already knew. Namely, standing over my altar with little candles illuminating the picture of my grandma holding me after a pre-k recital, I can take solace in at least one truth: even as a 22-year-old, I’d still be my grandma’s mamacita.