By EAMD Staff
“The most Mexican thing William Faulkner ever wrote is his famous passage from Requiem for a Nun: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ I came across the quote when I was a teen, though I can’t remember where. Finally, I thought, I had discovered an American culture that approached death the way we Mexicans did: with ease, joy, and respect.” — Gustavo Arellano
On November 3, the East Aldine Management District hosted its first Dia De Los Muertos celebration in partnership with Brookside Memorial Park on the Eastex Freeway at Lauder Road. The event included face painting, raffles, live entertainment, food trucks, and multiple ofrendas (traditional Mexican offerings for the dead), including a life sized example, with two models accompanying the colorful, parade-float-sized design.
The festival denotes the management district’s respect for Mexican-American traditions in respecting the deceased. It’s more about celebrating their memory than grieving their loss. In Mexico, it is a national holiday, it is the culmination of a three-day ceremony once summarized by Frances Ann Day, author of Latina and Latino Voices in Literature, thusly: “On October 31, All Hallows Eve, the children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit. November 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits will come to visit. November 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The three-day fiesta is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations.”
Once primarily celebrated in southern and central Mexico, this concept of death as a celebration of life rather than a process of perpetual mourning has been marching northward with the persistence and pace of an armadillo. Today, it is celebrated as far north as Canada, and increasingly in the homes of Anglos as well as Latinos.
Mexican and Mexican-American graves are not mere granite stones — around the end of October each year, they erupt in color — rainbow arrays of flowers, toys (if their loved one died young), foods and drinks, anything that the deceased loved and that their descendants remember about them. Very often the gravestones themselves are hand-crafted and painted by their loved ones, their shapes ranging from plain to cathedral-like, their colors from stone to pink.
It’s a mixture of Catholic and indigenous traditions — leaning a little more heavily on the indigenous side — but in the end, it’s a reminder that, as Arellano reminds us, the American South (of which Houston is a part, no matter how hard it tries not to be) and southern Mexico agree that “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”
Take, for example, two of the people interred at Brookside, one infamous, and one locally famous.
There’s William Daniel “Deacon” Jones, son of an impoverished sharecropper from north Texas, and an accomplished car thief by the age of 17. He had an older friend he looked up to as a brother, and that young man offered him a pathway to greater career prospects. Namely, robbing banks. That man was Clyde Barrow, and Deacon Jones became a member of the Bonnie and Clyde Gang, surviving many shootouts and a prison sentence only to die at the wrong end of a gun in the 1970s.
And then there is Leon “Pappy” Selph, the beloved fiddler/fireman who is acclaimed as a founder of honky-tonk music and a member of the Western Swing Hall of Fame. At the end of his long life, it was written in a London newspaper: “Roger Miller once wrote and recorded a song called ‘Kansas City Star,’ about a talented individual who never wanted to leave his hometown. So it was with Leon ‘Pappy’ Selph – he could have become an important country musician, but he preferred to stay in Houston, maintaining a day job as a fireman. He lived, worked and died in Houston and he would look lovingly at the Houston skyline and proclaim, ‘That’s my town.’”
Both of them live beyond death, as all of us do, in the memories of our loved ones. And that is what Dia de los Muertos is all about.