Between Day of the Dead and Thanksgiving

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It’s November 4 in the City of Los Angeles.  Even though last weekend was edged with little chill in the air, this week bounced back to the hot, dry, yellow-tinted skies that often visit us in our Southern California version of autumn.  Ravens caw and circle, you can feel the nitrous oxides and the sulfides from traffic get trapped and bloom in the heat.  Everything feels browned, burnt and dusty.

Today I got to go downtown to the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration–a modernist, 50s building with robust air conditioning and the opportunity to take escalators up all ten floors to the wood paneled top.  Staid and solid, I was there for a meeting where government teams from across the county were being trained on how they could advance racial equity.  Nobody brought coffee, but it was okay because the conversation was powerful, and there was a mini-bodega on the third floor that with salsa music and lukewarm but surprisingly good coffee offered for a dollar to those with their own mugs.  There was also a line of pay phone booths, each in its own private niche—a weird, wonderful mash up of nostalgic and progressive.  Within this grandfather building, good things were percolating.

So here I am, tongue tied by my whiteness and privilege.  I’m surrounded by  these incredible men and women I work with—most not white, not from privileged backgrounds, who manage to be both pragmatic and hopeful about how we can end racial disparities—even on November 4—what feels like day 10,000 in the longest, most bitter presidential election ever.  This is the fifth or maybe sixth time I’ve done the ‘lay it on the line’ exercise, where you stand up on a spectrum with others to demonstrate whether you believe (or cannot believe) that we will end racial inequities.  Each time I stand somewhere different on this spectrum—today many people were in the middle ‘in a funk’ thanks to Trump.   But there were still a few—many who were not white, who stood on the side of belief that we could do it.  This leaves me with admiration, and makes me search my own heart for that optimism.

Popping out of the air conditioning and into the smog at the end of the day, I took a turn through Grand Park to walk my legs before heading home—and I was taken in by #DowntownDia—the annual collection of Dia De Los Muertos Altars curated by Self Help Graphics and Art and scattered throughout the park.  Of course I was lured in by all the orange marigolds—but when I looked closer, I noticed each altar was designed and built by a different individual or group, honoring something, or someone that has passed on ahead.  This is where I have to be so grateful for the infusion of the Dias tradition into the culture of LA.  Even my protestant, Presbyterian Church had an altar this year, and celebrated a specific service for ‘All Saints’ day on Sunday, inviting congregants to come forward and light a candle for the ‘saints in their lives.’   There is a re-infusion of the meaning around loved ones and remembrance into the carnival aspect of Halloween, a great mix of intention and celebration, death and decadence.

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The altars were wilting and beginning to rot in the November heat.  Ants were slowly marching away with crumbs of the pan de los muertos, marigolds petals were puckering and receding.  But the meaning of each was still very much present, amazing celebrations of some of the lives and tragedies that are often silent in these public spaces.  There were several altars commemorating the lives massacred at Pulse Night Club.  An altar to mental health and lives lost to suicide and other deaths on LA Metro’s Blue Line train.  An altar from the office of Hilda Solis in rememberance of the disappeared women of Ciuadad Juarez, and the students who disappeared in Iguala, Mexico.  A very powerful altar from Multicultural Communities for Mobility commemorating the black and brown lives lost this past year by people who were simply driving, walking, or commuting.

One of the ones I found most moving—probably because it is closest to home, was an altar with no marigolds—with a metal baby crib and chair with fronds of Swiss Cheese plant strung through, and bowls of provisions inside—the traditional seeds, chiles, but also lemons and dirt.   It was made to honor the artists’ matrilineal line—a sliver hand rising from the earth, a bowl of water.  Something about this is so powerful to me, an honoring of the incredible, tough, and historically invisible labor of women in nurturing family.  A visual reference to the sleeplessness, the dedication, the rootedness of this pursuit.  I feel deeply grateful to Jenifer Gutierrez Morgan for making manifest a feeling of gratitude I have deep in my heart to the grandmothers and great grandmothers whose names I do not know, but whose efforts I know I could not be here without. 

And I guess that sums up about how I feel in life right now, in this transition between  macabre festival  of the dead and Thanksgiving.  I feel so grateful.  So much right now seems damaged, squalid and tarnished.  Oil spilt, lungs burned, blood stained.  But at the same time I feel the incredible irrepressibility of this movement to make visible sacrifice too often hidden, and to right the persistent injustices in our system—these altars and marigolds and bright, strong people whose light I can stand in.  It’s overwhelming to experience this duality, but  I feel so grateful to be here and to witness it.  Rather than a hard stop to one season and a start to the other, it feels right to stand in this place of confusion and rot, beauty and toil and let my mind drift from sadness to thanksgiving.

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