Altares for mis muertos

During this year’s Day of the Dead, I took a step back to breathe in the emotions that come with remembering my muertos. There are days of guilt for moving on with experiences I wish I could’ve shared with them. Fiestas, new additions to the family, laughter, memories.

Nobody warned me that time would make it harder. I’ve always heard it gets easier with time, but that’s just a lie to provide comfort.

I didn’t do so because it wasn’t a custom we grew up with or practiced in our home, but I often think creating an altar during Day of the Dead is something I’d like to pick up sometime to celebrate with my nieces and nephews in a means to help them remember the ancestors who would’ve loved them so much.

In creating altares for my beloved, these are the supplies I would need to create my ofrenda:

– yellow marigolds (cempazuchitl) for traditional purposes
– forget me nots to emphasize I’ll forget them not
– paper flowers and papel picado created by my family
– images of my dearly departed
– a statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe, particularly in memory of my Abuela Carmen & Great Abuela Toña, devout followers
– candles to light their way home
– a mantel I was gifted by my Great Aunt Tomasa during my last visit with her in our family’s ejido in Durango, MX
– a Big Red for ama, pan dulce for my abuelitas, tamales for my great aunts, beans for my abuelos, and pasta for my brother
– playing cards for ama and my brother Tim, gamblers at heart
– glasses of water for sustenance during their journeys
– incense to purify the air
– letters/drawings from my nieces & nephews as gifts to their grandma & uncle
– Band-Aids for my brother, the biggest clutz ever

I’m sure my family would have input on what else we could decorate our altares with. What would you use to honor your dearly departed when creating an altar?

My New Book! La La Landia

My new book from FlowerSong Press has been released this month! It is a collection of poetry from the last decade and includes poetry that reminisces about El Valle when I grew up and our borderlands sister cities in el otro la’o.

Here’s the synopsis:
The borderlands of South Texas are the backdrop to this lively collection of poetry that explores the complexity of bridges, inviting readers to delve into the spaces between fronteras that connect and disconnect. Suarez shuffles through the vibrant music that inspired this book while recollecting the many rinconcitos of her beloved Rio Grande Valley.

Trip Across the Border

For someone who grew up in the borderlands, a fifteen minute drive from the frontera, it is so strange to reflect on my connection to el otro la’o. I still live in the same region, but dislocated from what was once a home-away-from-home.

Just a few weeks ago, what was shocking to me at first to realize, my teen nephews experienced Mexico for the first time. To them, it’s a new country and new territory and they had only heard what they’ve read about in the news. War-infested news and the violence that I have never witnessed.

How is this possible? 15 years in la frontera and never crossing that puente? How has fear created this wall for us?

It might be Mexico, but I’d hardly refer to Las Flores as a true experience of el otro la’o. It’s too much of a “touristy” town, everything in the stores and restaurants marked in U.S. dollars. Most vendors speaking English and dentists accepting American insurances.

Fabian drinking sweet tea.
Browsing the vendor stands.
Selfie with Cheeto.

My sobrinos had lots of questions. It started right after walking towards the bridge, listening to the shouts from the migrant camps below the puente. Why were they living there? How long would they be there? How could they handle the heat? How far had they travelled? Did they speak English?

My 12-year-old nephew, Fabiano Italiano, ran to ask his mom if a little girl about 6-years-old was lost because she was selling gum by herself, and where were her parents? It was an eye-opening experience for him, for all of them, to see not every child is as privileged as they are.

When my brother told them they could each pick out $6 worth of snacks at the store, they laughed. What could they get with $6? A bag of Takis, handful of Gansitos, bags of spicy peanuts, a box of galletas surtidas, a Joya de manzana, and a few other goodies later, they were thrilled with their finds. All items we can easily find back at home, just not at that low price.

Lunch was a platica reminiscing about our relatives in Reynosa. Our almost daily trips to visit or go shopping. Reminiscing about life in our frontera in the 90’s.

Dulceria Shop Stop

Planning a sobrino’s birthday party is a family affair. Everyone pitching in to help out without being asked because, trust me, there will come a time when the favor will be returned.

Maybe it’s a Suarez thing to wait til last minute, like literally the week before, to decide to throw a fiesta. And so when my sister said she’d be throwing a piñata for my nephew the following weekend, I called shotgun to being the ‘madrina’ of candy bags and a piñata. And you know what this means, right?!

Searching for a dulceria somewhere nearby. If you grew up in El Valle, dulcerias have always been a go-to for getting Mexican candy on the cheap. Literally de todo. Tamarindo, dulce de leche, chicles, mazapan, duvalin, those payaso pops, lucas, chicharrones, salimon, pulparindo, and on and on.

I hadn’t been to a dulceria since before the pandemic and had to drive around searching for one that was still open. Luckily, I ended up finding one that promised me a couple of hours of making bad decisions. Off of Old 83 and 2nd Street in McAllen, I spotted Dulcerias Pinkis, which I almost missed when a train blocked the view.

Train on the tracks by Old 83

Even before walking into the dulceria, I knew it was a bad decision walking in there by myself. In case you don’t know me, this woman right here is the candy queen of the family. It’s one of my weaknesses. This picture below is what my view was as I got off my car.

Entrance to Dulcerias Pinkis

Doesn’t the entrance look like you’re about to enter a circus?

And oh boy, you have no idea how many trips around the store I took, grabbing candy and then returning it to where it belongs when trying to budget myself. The selection of piñatas varied with popular themes such as Pikachu, Spongebob, Power Rangers, and sirenas and were hanging all thru the store from the ceiling.

Piñatas hanging from the ceiling

With knick-knacks all around, such as Mexican embroidered blouses and Frida Kahlo inspired tote bags, focusing on shopping only for candy was quite the task! That candy selection though.

Which candies would you choose from a dulceria? Do you have a favorite candy shop in your area?

Apa, The Babysitter

Apa has become that abuelito he didn’t imagine he’d become. The babysitter. Any time I stop by for a visit, I can certainly expect to find a niece or nephew (sometimes the entire lot of them) spending time with their grandpa. And if none are there, he’s likely to be out and about visiting them. He has so much love to give.

I certainly never expected to see him changing diapers or preparing arroz con leche for his grandkids, but there he is calling his sister-in-law for recipes my mom once used to make the kids. As a chemist, he decided not to stress about preparing meals for the first time in his life. After all, isn’t it like throwing together chemicals? I guess he does have a point there.

The preschoolers: Julian, Navia, and Tori

I imagine ama full of pride at his role now that she’s gone. Not really gone though. We feel her presence in their home, our home, whenever we’re there. I don’t even know how to explain it to you. But there is sometimes this guilt of moving on without her.

Last weekend that I stopped by to see him, the preschoolers were running around the living room playing tag, and apa sat back laughing at their conversation about dinosaur raptors as he read the newspaper. It was the current edition of ‘The Monitor’ and such a familiar picture to me. I can’t remember a day when he didn’t spend the morning catching up on the news, and then informing us about what he read. We learned from him the importance of keeping up with what’s happening in our community, and the world.

What’s in the News

Apa reading ‘The Monitor’

The week had been tense after the Capitol Riots, and looking forward to Biden’s inauguration felt bittersweet. Up until the actual day of the inauguration there was a sense of caution many of us felt, not sure everything would go smoothly. But the day was something we’d been looking forward to.

In the news was a list of COVID related deaths that overflowed the paper. And scattered throughout, the articles mostly related to the pandemic. Most events featured were virtual programming.

We wondered what my mom and older brother would have thought if they had lived through these times. I’m certain ama would have been glued to CNN and my brother would have been finding ways we could be extra cautious. They certainly would have never imagined a pandemic in the short time after their passing.

Un Recuerdo: Breakfast con Abuelo

Mementos are powerful. Take, for example, this photograph I’d taken with my Abuelo Eduardo over 10 years ago. Looking at it is like a time-machine transporting me to that precise moment, feelings and all.

The morning in that photo, I awoke feeling like it was straight from a Folger’s coffee commercial.  Sin ganas de despertar. Pero, mi abuelo started up some of his Nescafe coffee con extra, extra sugar on the stove and put the fajita and pollo and sausage – that I had taken over from the previous night’s barbecue ­– to fry on the stove con chiles piquin and potatoes, all fried with tomato sauce.  Y con crunchy tortillas. Híjole!  You can imagine it, right?!

Delicious.  What a revoltura. My abuelo knew his hechos. Even abuela forgot about her empache y hay se sento a desayunar su platote de sea lo que sea que invento mi abuelo.

My aunt Elva was taking a siesta on the sofa.

After breakfast, mis abuelos went outside to water their jardin del paraíso – as I tended to call their garden.  Flowers and plants of all types.  And you should see the fruit they’d planted over the years!  Melons, sandias, uvas, duraznos, naranjas y limas, guayabas y tomatoes, hasta platanos, and more! They loved their jardin.  And so did I.  It wouldn’t have been my abuelos’ place without it.  I hope one day to take after them.

Uy!  I felt el espiritu de mi bis-abuela Linda pass right past me. Probably my imagination.  Probably.  Maybe it’s cuz I’m here by myself sipping on coffee, listening to Pedro Infante, writing on the flower patterned mantel abuela brought from San Miguel de Allende, thinking about life and the past.

And sometimes that hurts. Not knowing enough of the past when I want to know it all.

I Sometimes Imagine Borders

I sometimes imagine borders when I think of home. Not the physical lines that cross through the green blues of the Rio Grande, swelling against the cactus of the dry heat. No, not the obvious terrain without a bloom of roses or the branches of poincianas.

The liminal borders I pretend to imagine come to mind when my roots react, the realities of today eclipsing the limbo of my lenguajes. An imaginary border, tender thoughts slipping from my womb. I imagine my homeland out of grasp like the opal glittered with gold on Motecuhzoma’s chest.

I imagine swimming through oceans when I think of home with my relatives in our sister country, merely a river away.

Boundaries guilty of fear.

Boundaries separate of me.

Cafecito Moments

COVID has taken so much of my imagination away. It just disappeared somewhere down the lane of days and weeks and months. And without imagination, olvídate about creativity!

Being isolated from my extended family has taught me a few things. I hadn’t really thought much about it before these times, but my family and their cuentos inspire me so much. Their cuentos connect me to the community of love and hope and memories and chismes. That connection brings me laughter and alleviates the everyday stress by reminding me my burdens are not for me to carry alone.

I ran across the video clip below from my phone memories and immediately felt happy. Those cafecito moments with the different generations of family appreciating a simple moment.

What are some of the pre-COVID moments you are missing?

My Perspective as a Poet from the Borderlands

As a poet from the Rio Grande Valley, I write about what I know – which is my family, my culture, the distinctive region I live in, and the borders that surround us. I was eight years old the first time I was taught to be ashamed of my language. Growing up in a household on this side of the frontera, it wasn’t strange for my parents to choose teaching me only Spanish when it was their primary tongue and so common in our community. (Though my now pocha tongue would tell you otherwise.)

I am a Chicana/ Mexican-American from an immigrant family, I’ve lived my entire life in the border deeply immersed in Mexican culture. My parents grew up in America as migrant farmworkers, traveling the nation every year for work opportunities and witnessing firsthand discrimination towards their language and skin color. They experienced the burlas I never have.

I look at the divide between my parents’ upbringing and mine – what I see is how their struggles and experiences are embedded in everything I do. Their storytelling of calloused hands, deportation, and empty food pantries.

I am fortunate to be a part of an artistic family of comadres and compadres in El Valle that embraces the diversity of our borderland voices, acknowledging each other’s endeavors and experiencing how a support system has helped build a foundation that opened doors for our literary and arts community to flourish in the past decade. In my work at McAllen Public Library, I have seen the passion our local librarians and school teachers have for cultivating an environment of preserving our cultures.

Recently, I had the privilege of becoming my city’s poet laureate from 2015-17, an experience that has connected me with a larger audience in my region. I have been visiting schools and community centers spanning the geographic length of the Rio Grande Valley. This role has been a humbling and enlightening experience, allowing me the privilege and opportunity of observing how residents of South Texas experience poetry with writers approaching me from the unlikeliest corners. My community has opened its doors in venues I’d never considered, such as the Mexican Consulate in McAllen, TX. This absolutely thrills me but also has shown me that even in the Valley, there’s a spectrum of literacy we have yet to acknowledge.

After all, how can I consider events I’ve attended and hosted as being an embodiment of ‘border voices’ when our peers from el otro lado haven’t been represented?

In recent years, I have seen a growing number of Mexican, Central and Latin American residents at poetry events here in the Valley. This is due to immigration surges from Central and South America and also because of the closure of cultural centers in Mexico, where our frontera neighbors are facing increased fear and inseguridad. I’ve wondered what encourages them to participate in Valley events, and it is, I believe, because of the power of the spoken word and the Latino literary tradition that runs deep through the spectrum of Latinos with very different life experiences.

I believe these events must be documented by those living it.

Times have changed. It’s been almost five years since the last time I crossed the frontera, and what saddens me most is realizing my nieces and nephews will never know the frontera as I do. Their world only consists of este la’o and they have never met or visited la familia in Mexico.

Not because of a physical border, but that invisible border called fear.

I am from the borderlands of deep South Texas. A place where a wall was built to divide one region from the other – a symbol that confuses me with theories. I jump from skin to shell with my lenguajes – that’s what my borders gave me. Infinite roads of luck and legends and memories.

But to write of life en el otro la’o…to write about life as an immigrant…I could never do that because what I have learned is that all connections I have to those experiences aren’t enough. I have learned I am ignorant and naïve. I have learned that even though I am a writer, sometimes my job is to listen and learn and embrace and support other voices who can authentically tell these stories.

Eulogy for Sylvia Suarez, my mami

I would like to give abrazos and a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has offered their prayers, thoughts, condolences, love, and support to our family these past few weeks. Seeing my mother going through pain devastated us, and then accepting it was time to let go was so very difficult; but your friendship and companionship has truly, truly been a blessing. I wouldn’t be surprised to have gained twenty pounds after all the pan dulce and hot meals brought over to my parents’ home lately. The tears you have shed for my mother, and for us, have made it clear we are not alone.

Our mother was a passionate woman, always amazing us with how many people she knew and her friendships from all moments of her existence. She never forgot the name that went with the face, nor the stories that went with the friendship. She loved, anyone and everyone.

The past year had been difficult for her, depending on others to drive her when she was used to her independence….always de pata larga, as my father would say. O de jacalera. Our memories with mom consist of dropping by to visit an old family friend, or a relative, and remembering to pick up a box of pan dulce or donas to take with us. And if a visit wasn’t possible, there she was with her hours long phone calls to catch up on chisme.

I can’t recall having ‘peaceful’ weekends at home either. Our house was always a jumble of visita, primos and friends staying over, and overrun by the many pets that came in and out of our home. From all of us, it was mami who would be tumbling outside in the backyard and playing with the pets…como si fuera niña. Our neighborhood puppies escaping their yards and coming over for a visit with her. At one point we even had a rooster as a pet and every morning, there was mami acariciandolo.

A few days before mami had been admitted into the hospital for the last time, she posted a video on Tío Robe’s Facebook page that made her reminisce about their childhood in the 50’s and 60’s. Sometimes, they would be here at home en el valle. At others, it was up en el norte doing migrant farmwork. The song was “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” by The Hollies. (Listen to song here:

It’s easy for me to picture the De La Garza siblings growing up near Bell Street in Pharr, TX, experiencing moments such as Uncle Ram being drafted and heading off to Vietnam War, the tumultuous Pharr Riots and the chaos that affected them and other neighborhood families, going to sock hops and dancing to the latest records in their school gyms, and heading out to Montemorelos for visits with their abuelo Tomas and Toñita.

Mami’s childhood always came up in her stories, usually making us giggle, confessing things such as how she would pin the blame on whoever was nearest when she’d hurt herself out of clumsiness. Everyone running in all directions as soon as they heard her cry, out of fear they’d be blamed.

Or how Uncle Ramiro would stash candy in his sock drawer and would blame Robe when he’d discover it missing…until the day he caught his cute baby sister red-handed. Not that I’m making a case for Robe. I mean, if he was the first one they pointed the finger at, it was for a reason.

The lyrics to this song by The Hollies say:

“The road is long / with many a winding turn
that leads us to who knows where / who knows where
but I’m strong / strong enough to carry him
he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”

These past few weeks, this song was a testament to what I’ve seen from many who loved her, but particularly her brothers (Robe and Ramiro) and sisters (Ninfa and Juani).

29357178_1691358477627063_7851192564537047621_nAnd then I think of my father, the love of her life. She was so grateful for all he had done for her, spoiling her, taking her to the casinitos – legal or not – when he was exhausted, going on road trips to Oklahoma, or flying out to Vegas for a few days. Being her best friend and understanding her like no one else.

According to my dad, and I know this isn’t true, the first time he saw her he thought she was my Tío Robe wearing a wig. La guera, his honey, as he called her. Ama and apa were so different, yet so alike. I can picture them at a baile, dancing to her favorite music, as mami let apa lead her with vuelta tras vuelta. A veces, her dress slip would fall after all those vueltas during a Tejano baile.

One of her favorite musicians was Jay Perez. Any time his music came out on the radio, a grito escaped her lungs. There is a song of his that goes (Listen to song here:

“Amor / Yo te e dado lo mejor de mi
Amor / como quiero estar cerca de ti
jamas / olvidarme de tu corazón
y volver amarte asi”.  

To me, these are the lyrics in my father’s heart. As we go on, it’ll be most difficult for us to see him growing old without his güera by his side. I ask for you to help us remind him how much he is loved and needed as he heals from this heartbreak.

My first memories are of being about four years old and living out in a ranchito in Las Milpas. Back then, it was all monte and labores for miles. We had stray dogs that would end up in our ranchito, and on one particular day, I was outside being a diva and singing a Daniela Romo song to a crowd of about twelve dogs. Before you ask, no, they weren’t barking at me!

When I was done singing, I turned and saw mami smiling at me from the entrance to the house.

She called me in for a nap and as she sang me a lullaby, I looked out the window and wondered if my mami had a mami of her own. When I asked her, she explained her own mami lived too far away and that we’d have to climb a thousand steps into heaven to visit her. At some point while sleeping, I peeked my eyes open and saw mami silently sobbing as she looked out the window.

There have been many moments like this throughout my life and though I didn’t understand them then, I do understand now that I’m an adult.

I think about how fortunate we are to have had our mother into our adulthood, thinking how she was a kid when she lost hers. We will always miss her, but she left us with enough love for a lifetime. There has not been one single day in our lives when we have not known we are loved.

One of the things we’ve learned from our parents is that love is not something that expires, and the heart has no limit. Loving someone else doesn’t take away the love you already have for another. It helped my brothers and sisters bond and learn not to live with jealousy for one another. And I really thought I understood our mother’s love. That is, until grandchildren came into her life. Her Pingüinos Marinela and Chicharrones, as she called them.

10858615_836547623096256_6294296171969953693_nI can hear her singing a melody of Sonny and Cher to Tori Bambori, “Tori don’t go / pretty baby please don’t go”; putting a Tejano song on full blast and getting all her babies to make a riot dancing, carrying Navia on one arm and turning Luisito with the other; putting Diego and Fabian to sleep with one of her silly, made up stories; letting Julian get away with anything, scolding us to “Dejenlo!” when he broke yet another thing; asking to carry her baby Sophia when she had no strength left in her arms.

406926_2614037722187_536601067_nMom’s last days were filled with memories and love. And we’d like to thank all of you for sharing your stories of mom’s sense of humor and friendships. These past few days were filled with stories about running into las tías Suarez at bailes at Bocaccios 2000 and Starship, drinking zombies…whatever that is; empapachando her nephews and nieces; stories about abuelita Carmen and Toñita; and her being an accomplice with her grandchildren in so many ways.

Mom would often remind us after our visits, “Recuerden que tienen una mala madre y un buen padre…al revés!” Always joking but reminding us my parents would be there for us, regardless of the circumstances.

And that’s what I’d like to leave you with. A reminder. Her reminder.

Don’t forget to remember those who’ve loved you. Visit them, call them, let them know they are thought of. Particularly our viejitos.