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Dia de los Muertos: When Foreign Feels like Home

The final years I worked in Guatemala, each mini bus shuttle ride became increasingly excruciating as I listened to individuals who spent anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks to 2 months where I lived. As I was ever more confused, each person who spoke on those rides was excruciatingly more enlightened. As I further doubted the effects of my efforts, each story rung out ever more inspired. Besides those shuttle rides, the only other time I had craved so deeply not to be a tourist was when I experienced Day of the Dead in a village cemetery. I had never asked to go and I was only asked to go once. I took no pictures and sometime after that evening in candlelight, I stopped taking pictures of anything at all.

“Día de los muertos,” I can mouth the words. They smell like bundles tied twice across to form an x. They crunch like well-worn cloth and freshly snapped harvest. The flowers and the candles flicker in the night. People talk. My friend asks me if I’m bored in Kaqchikel.

“Majani,” I say. “Not yet.” I miss much of the conversation, but I am not bored. I know this is not a moment I will see often, if ever, again. Of the mixing words set out as tablecloths and seat covers in one floating movement, I hear more now than I don’t, than I did. My heart pumps. Not scared nor uncomfortable in the graveyard, not with death. I try to sear the visions into my memory. I dig my knees deep into the grass. It’s dry. Rains are infrequent in November. If I was free, I would come back to this place. But, things would change I would never be exactly in that place with those people again.

I try not to breathe too deep too close to a drunk man’s knee. We sit near the faded but clean structures with the names of fathers and fathers’ fathers etched on the stone the color of candy in daylight. Most of the children’ put their kites away in the onset of evening. Instead of their geometrical drifts, my mind floats. I search for eyes who know me. Still it is my mother’s eyes that are knowing in the spaces I leave between words. When I speak, I seek my reflection in hers. Did she still feel like a tourist when she was buried in a cemetery far from home?

I love the smells of so many meals I won’t eat. Atole is being served at the cemetery entrance, and chuchitos, a name and food I am still not sure of, but I am already full from roasted guisquil that Mena had turned over wood and carried down. My hair is like the silk pouring out the end browner on the tips like the toasted kernels now. Maria had cut my hair. I buried it in the dirt of my patio to combat forgetting.

Back home in Wisconsin, my hair is the color of most hair, but I try to believe in my ties to that land as the blessing of corn and not the curse that burns so much of it in chemical spray and leaches the earth’s health from itself. The seeds here had survived no matter the plants that had fallen or been forced to bend to their knees. I cannot be a tourist and still not belong.

Sounds. Conversing. Wiping of bowls with fingers. Cans snapping open. Kernels and coals popping. Eyes closed, the world is still filled. It is not a party, but it is not a celebration. I laugh thinking of how the difference in vocabulary between parade and procession had once been so hard to learn. Life’s destiny is formed in sounds, their back and forth, like the roasted mazorcas smeared in salt, lemon and two pastes, one red one white. My life’s destiny is saved in words, their back and forth like the accordion folds securing pages’ order in books. Why am I donating books to a place already full of stories? Food and water and fire make sounds. Bodies make sounds. Hopes make sounds. Futures are told in these sounds but they go unwritten and so perhaps are only dreams.

Hours later candles lose their flicker, but the smell of earth is still on my palms to be mixed with food cooking below. It seems impossible to imagine that the milpas could have ever been exhausted enough to not serve the populations. The problem is stolen land not stolen seeds. The phone calls to my father marvel at the steepness of the men’s climb to those fields and the anxiety of climatic changes. I hear his voice more clearly now, calling me home.

I slip out the gate, pausing to deposit a Styrofoam cup with the other empty ones spilling over their container and into the pathway beyond. I can give no lecture on the three Rs. Even then, five years before I came home, I knew I was leaving. As much as I dug in against not belonging, I judged every decision against the size of my suitcase. After all those years, what did that make me?

I am increasingly engaged in deconstructing tourism. But perhaps I am being too hard on myself. Maybe I simply reached the point where foreign feels like home, just not my home. In the car I pull up to stoplights, and I turn my music down. Not because I am ashamed of the songs, which once was true as a white woman in a Kaqchikel village, but because its not tourism that bothers me but intrusion.

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