DREAMing Out Loud: Voices of Migrant Writers, is a PEN America workshop series for young undocumented and migrant writers. This week we excerpt an anthology of their work.

I would look at the band. I would spin a little more and look up at Claudis, jamming hard to herself on the inside. My gaze on Jorge, mid-twirl. He was laughing out loud unas carcajadas. It was 2019, Día de los Muertos. The static was distracting me so much that I could not let go and “trip out.” Something was telling me, Enjoy this now. Next year is far away. Long. And you just won’t be here. My gaze panned over to the stage, my friends, and the altar. Ancient cumbia currents jolting my sangre. ¡Pónle y dale shine! A deep inhale for mota-vation. It all of a sudden hit me. The idea came right in through the top of my head. A cacophony of inexplicable phantom chatter. I was tense and unsettled even as we Aztec-stomped and twirled like the whirling dervishes spinning amidst floating clouds of copál under luminous beams of hot pink fluorescent light.

The músicos were playing for the Muertos, and we were dancing for them on their night! The journey was over. Á comer, bailar, á fumar y beber. Goza, disfruta. Celebrate! This is the night cuando viven los Muertos! I couldn’t get enough of it all. I recall trying so hard to let go of the banal and embrace a higher frequency. My effort to freefall into a musical abyss in the rhythms of the güira, but no. There was palpable static, poking me on the shoulder. It was like the TV static from the movie Poltergeist.

I would squint at the Altar with the big calavera, the gigantic skull, the central figure, a colossal head of the Catrina made from papier-mâché. This year she donned a crown of paper cempasúchil, the indigenous Nàhuatl word for marigolds. This particularly fragrant flower is native to México and an essential traditional element of Altar dedication.

Their aroma guides the deceased to reach their loved ones. That journey from the Netherworld of Mictlán to the one in this plane is a long, arduous journey. It’s like, We have arrived. ¡Ya llegamos! Get on with the feast. The probaditas of their most favorite food: mole, cafe ito, or pan de Muertos…nips of their favorite spirit, a puff of ceremonial tobacco…I would look at the stars and the moon. All the while, they watched. They listened. They inhaled. Their images, wheat-pasted on photo boards that leaned on the structure, watched all. All their faces forward. All their eyes gazed upon you.

* * *

I make Altares for our Muertos. I honor our Antepasados. I am here to continue the tradition of storytelling. The designated site for this Altar was a settlement established by the Canary Islanders back in the 1730s, near the shrine of the Alamo. Aquí llegó gente de Brazil, del Oriente (en esos tiempos) native Nican Tlaca, Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan. Tunnels ran underneath that led from the town Cathedral to the missions. They were in use throughout the 1970s. I used to walk those tunnels with mami and guela, then enjoy a fancy lunch after a full day of mandados at Luby’s Cafeteria. I would obsess and delight in using real cloth napkins, and I died (no pun intended) for the strawberry shortcake. The uber-cold air conditioning on a sultry summer day was the biggest treat.

Years later, my dad worked right above those tunnels for a bit at the very Cathedral. He said that sometimes during mass, in the quiet solemnity of prayer or during the rosary, he’d look up and catch a glimpse of ghost-parishioners sitting in the pews. He said he could tell they were ghosts because they always looked gray, and their hair was noticeably un-shiny. He never could see their eyes, though. Their faces were sometimes absent! He would say that sometimes, late at night, he would hear a loud screeching noise echoing as if a heavy steel bench was being dragged against the rugged limestone floor. The benches, in actuality, were bolted down. Sometimes, the ghosts would call him by his full name. His reaction was to act deaf and loudly hum or whistle canciones de los Beatles pa no tener miedo.

* * *

The first Altar I ever made was miniature, a tiny collection of personal mementos with traditional elements like food, ofrendas, and photos. There are certain guidelines to follow when paying homage, and there was so much trauma. I assembled this altar after my mother and beloved, Barry, had died. I couldn’t honor them as much because I was suicidal at the time, and mami’s house was acting haunted. I felt and maybe sometimes acted like Little Edie in Grey Gardens, except that instead of the Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton, I was in my barriohood of west-side San Antonio. Hostile ghosts were draining my energy at the comedy club where I was a stand-in fry cook-slash-office assistant, and I felt fat. Ni modo.

Around that same time, I was part of a performance art festival in that same vicinity. I had to do a permission ritual. A blessing to make sure “they” knew I was earnest and to protect myself from any bad spirits. It was sacred and hallowed ground near the Alamo, by the Menger Hotel. One’s approach must be genuine and earnest. Humbly, we ask permission. It takes a medicine person to do the formal ritual. I’d bring the offerings of smudge and holy water for her to use, and incense. We would do a general sweep first and get a kind of “baseline sense” of the space before the event.

Occasionally, nausea, dizziness, and anxiety would overtake me. I’d pause, take a moment, and look around…It would go away. By the third time, Natchiz, my comadre cósmica who was performing the ritual with me, caught on — I felt it. She would say in a somber, low voice, “Aquí calló uno. . . she took a step aquí también.” She turned and pointed with finality, “Y aquí.” It happened to be the same places where I’d had those visceral reactions. I nodded, and we finished closing the prayer with smoke. She sprinkled agua bendita with the utmost respect.

Event night arrived. The piece I presented was about a lechuza, a mythical creature of folklore. I got so caught up with the crowd, the set teardown, and all that I did not do the formal closing at the end. Well, the spirit sent out a message to me that very same night. It was like ending a Ouija board session without saying goodbye. I knew it. My whole stomach dropped. I was in for it. Deservedly so. The offense of omitting the end of the night prayer of gratitude was inexcusable. I lost my cell phone; I was so screwed and had no money to replace it. The next day, someone broke into my house. I was beside myself, as well as terrified that I had been disrespectful and had to make amends. I was scared.

That was over a decade ago.

* * *

Back to 2019 Day of the Dead. I went out to the site to begin the design and assemblage. Laid out flat out around the little area of tierrita between the photos would display artesanías. There were little tin icons of margaritas, cervecitas, dulcitos. I guess when we use the suffix “-ito,” things sound more amable. English doesn’t allow for an “–ito,” and dead is dead…Muertito: the “–ito” makes it diminutive and somehow less brutal. Less stinging. Or it takes part of the sting away.

I’m a native. I know this plaza like the back of my hands. It goes right above the river, and in these circles of knowledge, water is known as a conduit for psychic phenomena. The limestone kept me thinking about the theory that residual energy from a traumatic event leaves an imprint and will replay itself indefinitely. The organizing before assembling the Altar would have been done the same night at the plaza, right above those old tunnels. I had mounds of cempasúchil to make a long garland. I had been sitting and kneeling on stones, and I needed a walk. I figured I’d pop over to a friend’s spot to sit down a little while on one of their chairs. Security guards who had been hired overnight were making the rounds, and generally, people here respect the Altars, so leaving my charge for a few minutes would be fine.

I was just around the way from Maverick Plaza (haunted, also). There is a signpost there. I took one step, then turned, and went on this weird, roundabout, spooky little walk. It was as if time stood still. I went into this spin. My feet barely touched the stones on the ground. There was a humming, and the Muertos took me on this circular, whirly jaunt. Not forgetting that sound. A cacophony of battle cries and llantos from the distant and recent past. Primal. It enclosed me. I ended up back at the fountain, next to the mounds of marigolds.

Qué pasó? My mind raced. I was hyperventilating. I choked. I was clammy. I had been spun into some netherworld vorneada like Mictlán. Muertos wanted to make me affirm their presence. I didn’t immediately gauge that they had done it to scare me. They did it to say, We’re here, and this is how we show up.

For you, I recount the messages that came through from the Muertos that night at the Hemisfair. The message was on point. It was loud and clear. You may believe in the paranormal or you may be a skeptic. These little occurrences are merely my acknowledgement and documentation of what happened to me. There is no logical explanation for those phantom sounds. We have no source for who the voices calling my pops belonged to in that empty building late at night at the Cathedral. If there is an explanation for the nausea-inducing, psychic attacks that struck me in the same spot where someone had literally dropped dead…I do not have it. How else could I account for the circular little jaunt I ended up taking at La Villita? That night, almost two years ago, the voices conveyed that things were about to change forever. Echoes intertwined with ancient psychedelic melodies from the wombs of civilization. Primal ways of communication? Advanced telepathic messages. It was them telling me. Warning me.

The world was headed into a pandemic. They were right. By the time June came around to start planning and arranging my flight, the infection and death rates in town were staggering, and there seemed to be no stopping it. No immunity. No vaccine.

There would be no traveling. It was as if all the people whose images were on that Altar facing me were all privy to the humanitarian crisis that was about to unfold. Mass death. This the last dance of an epoch in an under-appreciated, entitled age of freedom.

There was no way to make this into something of a bocadito, a bite-sized morsel.

Nothing “–ito” about so many losing their loved ones to an insidious virus. When the time came, all Altars were virtual. That gnawing at the bottom of my panza had to come around full circle for me to understand what it was. They were telling me to go and take it easy y despacito…Aquí hubieron más que unos cuantos piquetitos…Aquí hubo desmadre y medio…The stomach-churning irony of it is there are so many more Muertos because of the virus, and I couldn’t physically be there to mount them all.

I’m still haunted by echoes of words from the early days of the coronavirus in China that “life as we knew it would be temporarily disrupted.”

I am not here to convince you to believe. I am recounting these tales because they have led me to this point. The Ancestors and deceased told me. This year, there would be no physical altar for the community in situ. The virtual world would be the new, safe, “contactless” setting because of the pandemic. This was written in moments of dread, fear, and panic from the plague. I faced our mortality as a subculture on the fringe, underserved people in today’s society.

(c) M. Vázques Vasquez, 2021. Reprinted from DREAMing Out Loud: Voices of Migrant Writers.

M. Vázquez Vasquez

M. Vázquez Vasquez is a multidisciplinary writer of creative nonfiction and other hybrid texts in New York City. Her work honors antepasados by dedicating altars for the deceased. Using traditional ways of storytelling, she pays homage to those who have come before while also weaving together ancient, pre-colonial, and contemporary elements of art, cuisine, history, and culture. This piece is dedicated to her father.

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