NOVEMBER 2, 1998: for one day, the dead can find their way back to us. So we guide them with food, drink and blankets we lay out on the altars so they may rest after their long and difficult journey. We decorate their graves with photographs, messages, gifts and things that remind us of them – and them, we hope, of us. The Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, in Old Town is beautiful. When the stars come out, all the stores are still open, their frescoes adorned with candles, calaveras and orange marigolds. There is music, and costumes, and it is lively, and not sad, and my heart beats for the dead hearts that beat no longer.
I don’t even care if that sounds pretentious. Here in this crowd I am in wonder and I have no time for irony. I pass all of these gorgeous faces: painted white, thick black makeup around the eyes and the nasal aperture, petals painted over the eyebrows, flowers painted over the chin, teeth stencilled over the whitened lips. I walk with the women who wear black bride veils, red dresses and have giant roses in their hair. We are sisters in mourning. We sing ‘Las Calaveras’ and rancheras with the band. We take free hot chocolate and churros, leave dishes of pan de muertos at the ofrendas, clink glasses of mezcal, and some of us pray before the crosses. Later tonight we will hold candles and join in a procession from Whaley House down San Diego Avenue to El Campo Santo Cemetery. But right now we are looking for one catrin, that piece of shit from City Hall who is smug and condescending and ducks all our calls…
“Aw, fuck,” he mutters to his friend when he spots us, “it’s the Ombudsman.”
Her face is painted like a calacas in white and teal, with a series of musical clefs inscribed tastefully in black across her chin. She has on this navy blazer, white roses on the lapels, like she’s dressed up for the conference room of the dead. But I like that. I like that she’s all business, even here. I like that she still finds a way to be intimidating when everyone looks like a skeleton.
“Buenas noches, Councilman,” says Rachel Medina, the Ombudsman, my boss.
“What do you even want, Rachel?” huffs Chris Welch, giving a glance to whatever press secretary or strategist he has by his side. Old Town is in his district, so I think he is smart to be here tonight, and to have made such an effort on his costume. His makeup is pristine; must have been professional.
“Well,” Rachel begins, “I’ve been trying very hard to get in touch with you…”
“I think it’s deeply inappropriate for you to bring up politics at a community event, and, actually, I’m offended by that.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that you’re offended, Councilman, but I’m apparently unable to schedule an appointment with you, and I’ve left several messages with your office that I’m afraid don’t seem to get to you. And that’s troubling, and a problem with your office I encourage you to look into, because when I come to you with problems your constituents are having in your district and you don’t respond, well I’m sure you’re not actually ignoring that information, but there is a perception that you are indifferent. So let’s talk about this now, OK, because there actually happens to be a lot of your constituents here tonight, and I think it would be very good for you to be able to tell them, ‘yes, I am aware of the problem you’re having, and here is my plan to fix it.’”
The Councilman appears resentful and after a moment spares a look in my direction. “Who are you?”
“Marianthe. Ms Medina’s intern.” I stare at him through a white wedding veil that my mom wore. The gold sequin dress is new – well, old, actually, I found it in a Rescue Mission thrift store. The calacas makeup I did myself, looking in a mirror. It’s fine, Rachel’s is better – did she do that herself? I don’t know, six months and I still don’t know her, does she have a husband or a girlfriend or children or…?
“So you’re not even getting paid to wear that?” says the press secretary.
Rachel snaps her eyes to him. “Do you think it’s OK to talk like that?”
“Do you think it’s professional behaviour to speak to a co-worker like that?”
“No, I’ve asked you a question, do you need me to repeat it?”
“No, Miss Medina, it’s not professional,” he deadpans.
“Anyway, Rachel,” Welch cuts in, “what’s the problem, somebody with a broken faucet, or what is it this time, a housing thing, or zoning, or something else like that which could easily wait?”
“None of those, my office has been hearing a lot of complaints, suspect yours has too? about Campo Santo cemetery down the street. It’s not in great shape, and really it hasn’t been since ’93. There’s broken crosses, damaged headstones, broken enclosures. And I’m asking you, because you did say that this year you’d allocate some funding to Park and Recreation for it, and you didn’t do that. It’s only a little bit of money, Councilman, and it’s our history, which I can tell you means an awful lot to the people in your district.”
“Look, OK, it’s a cemetery that hasn’t been used in a hundred years, and who’s buried in it? Scumbags who passed out drunk and got eaten by coyotes, you can’t think of a better use of money? Say, infrastructure? What about a grant, to a local business that does multimedia? Entertainment software, the World Wide Web, Rachel? Have you heard of Myst? How about investing in a local business that wants to make a Myst?”
“Rosa Serrano de Cassidy,” Rachel recites, “married to a city administrator, died 1869. Buried in Campo Santo. Grave marker cracked in half. Don Miguel de Pedrorena, San Diego founding father, buried in Campo Santo, grave destroyed. Thomas Wrightington, original settler, buried in Campo Santo. Headstone broken…”
One person complained to her about this. Disrespectful to the memories of those buried, disrespectful to their families… that’s what he told us last week. Rachel said we would do whatever we could. And I think Campo Santo will get the money, in the end: Welch looks like he doesn’t care enough not to cave. But preserving El Campo Santo, Rachel said in the office this morning, is a losing battle. It’s not the same Campo Santo that it was a hundred, even fifty years ago. It has been decaying, or just changing, ever since it was possible for it to decay. Parts have been given away as roads and streetcar lines. In the ‘30s, it was redone almost entirely, with new crosses, fences and adobe walls installed around the perimeter, all based on one photograph and someone’s memory of what it looked like, or should have looked like. These days there are some voluntary preservation efforts, but the effect is strange, out of time: think replacement grave markers for an unknown wanderer or executed Native American leader printed in Courier or Times New Roman on plain paper, and sealed in laminate. There is no platonic ideal of Campo Santo left to restore; it has succumbed to entropy as much as the bodies buried within it. But we fight for it anyway, fight to fund some idea of a memory because, well, because we were asked to. Because the person who asked was ignored by his representatives, and there’s got to be at least one City employee you can guarantee will act in your interest, not their own, and I’m pretty sure Rachel is the only one who wants to be that person…
Chris Welch caves, grudgingly. He gives Rachel a handshake and a promise that he’ll lobby the Mayor to allocate something from her discretionary fund for repairs. Then he and his friend shuffle off into the crowd, with me watching fiercely should they dare look back.
Rachel buys me a beer. As the sky darkens, we sit in the little plaza near Conde Street, lit up by the glow of the candles on the public ofrendas. At the public altars, people leave offerings – bread and candy and cans of Coke – for loved ones buried elsewhere. The Aztecs believed that when we die we go to Mictlan, the underworld, deep beneath the earth. Death was the beginning of a journey, from the first level of Mictlan to the ninth. It is a journey of many years for our souls, which must pass through breakneck rivers, never-ending snowfalls and brutal winds, and over mountains of jagged razors of obsidian… and on one day every year, we have the chance to turn back and visit our families in the land of the living… would I go back through all that for a Coke? I guess that isn’t the point.
I push my wedding veil over my head and drink the beer, watching the costumed catrins and catrinas dance to the live band. Rachel cautions me to pay attention to what happens in the wake of the battles we think we won. Fifty years ago, she says, the City built a stretch of San Diego Avenue over a couple square feet of El Campo Santo. They paved over twenty graves, grave markers gone, no acknowledgement, effectively consigning all the bodies buried underneath to historical oblivion. Rachel fought for years to get that rectified and the bodies acknowledged. The City didn’t even admit there were bodies until some scientists in ’93 used ground-penetrating radar to prove it. Twenty San Diegans buried beneath the road, and what did the City do? Exhumed the body of one man who’d been a state assemblyman in the 1870s, gave him a proper grave, and just left everyone else down there. At the spot in the sidewalk above the bodies they embedded a little brass button into the concrete that said ‘grave site,’ and that was it. They told Rachel they couldn’t have done it without her. As if the City were a terrible Greek god who subverts the wishes of mortals to teach a moral lesson, but whatever the lesson they tried to teach Rachel was, it escapes me. Rachel says, the lesson is don’t trust anyone who has power. But I can’t agree. I trust her.
Rachel and I don’t hang out and drink beer. I work with her Mondays and Wednesdays and beyond those days I don’t know what her life is like. I wish I did, because the time I do spend with her is… I was meant to answer her phone and do her filing, and in two months she had me briefing the Mayor about staff misconduct and sitting in on closed Council sessions we weren’t invited to. There aren’t many people who would ask a twenty-one year old community college student to write a public statement calling the City of San Diego’s chief financial officer misinformed and irresponsible. Rachel does that. She is fearless. I owe her so much.
Rachel finishes her beer and stands up, starts to say goodbye. “Thanks for coming tonight. I know it’s a little more than we usually do; I really appreciate it. You can take Wednesday off, if you want to.”
“No, it’s okay, I mean, it was my pleasure. This was really fun.”
Rachel glances down the avenue toward Campo Santo. “Well, think about it. And you should stick around tonight, see more of the festival. If it’s your first time, I really recommend it.” She insists on giving me cab fare for later.
“I will – actually, um, do you want to stay? Some friends of mine are meeting me here later and we’ll probably get a few drinks and something to eat around here, maybe after the procession, do you want to come, it’s totally cool if you wanted to…?”
For a second she actually looks startled. “Oh – thank you, I would, but I’ve got my son at home – maybe another time?”
“Oh, yeah, of course, absolutely, yeah. Yeah, I would love that.”
After she’s gone, Rachel stops outside the short adobe walls of El Campo Santo, between the sparingly planted palm trees. She crouches and opens her bag, and by the unattended brass marker that says Grave Site, she makes a circle out of marigolds. I am proud of her. And it reminds me: I am beginning to think that the friendships one has with other women might be the most important of all. Men will come and go. I think it is friendships with other women that can always be relied on. And can show me how to be a better woman myself. I walk back alone into the crowd surrounding the public ofrendas, near the little stage where the folk musicians are playing, and I am singing again with my sisters and my brothers, and the history of this moment grips my heart like a vise and I begin to cry. A woman dressed boldly in black and red calls at me over the sound that she likes my outfit and my makeup is fantastic. My mind slips away and wanders to the end of Mictlan, where awaits the traveling soul a windowless house, filled with spiders and owls. In this house sit the Lord and Lady of the Underworld upon their thrones. They are King Mictlantechutli and Queen Mictecacihuatl and they wait for the dead to come to them bearing the gifts with which they were buried. Dia de los Muertos comes from her: Mictecacihutal, goddess of death, whom the Aztecs honored with festivals lasting many weeks, and celebrated – not mourned, because death is the not the end – the memories of their ancestors, the lost and the dead… I feel like she would have liked Rachel… is that silly to think?