The hot chocolate lapped against my lips, and I knew it was Abuelita. That frothy dark chocolate and cinnamon rich milk is so unmistakable. Within the first few sips, I was a child again, stirring fat pucks of Abuelita hot chocolate into a warm pot of milk over an ancient stove covered in grease stains and dried up Hamburger Helper. My grandmother, in her evening pullover, saunters over to a candle, her slippers dragging across the tile. She lights a prayer candle with Jesus or the Virgin Mary or some other saintly looking figure. The burnt match’s sulfur dioxide evaporates in the air, and my grandmother ladles hot chocolate into her grandchildren’s mugs.
Sometimes I don’t realize how much I miss my grandmother until it hits me suddenly, as it did at the annual Celebraciones de la Gente festival at the Museum of Northern Arizona. But I suppose if there was a time to remember those we’ve lost, this was it. After finishing my pan dulce I walked around to the various ofrendas sprinkled throughout the courtyard, all uniquely decorated with candles and sugar skulls, orange and yellow marigolds, a plate of carne asada with rice, beans and serrano peppers, a bottle of tequila, Bud Light, candy and crystals. It made me wonder what I might leave for my grandmother on her ofrenda: casino chips, a DVD of All My Children, a lemon, Abuelita hot chocolate. I wished she could have been alive for my graduation, to see me early in my career as a journalist, to see me as more than my high school self, disenchanted and alone.
A six-piece mariachi band walked around, stopped by each ofrenda and played a few songs. Mariachi music always reminds me of a grandfather I never knew, a culture multiple generations apart from me, some distant lineage I don’t quite understand yet has come to define me. As a child, I’d ask my grandmother to translate what mariachi singers were saying. I’d pick up a few words and phrases here and there—te extraño, me dejo llevar, recuerdame, sangre, corazon—but even if I didn’t wholly understand it in what they were singing, I felt it in how they were singing, that deep yearning from somewhere deep within their chests, the way their howls always cracked the recording and sent shivers down my spine.
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I heard a voice. Underneath stringed lights of the MNA courtyard, a woman with grey hair and thin glasses smiled at me. I had met her earlier, as I spoke with Lydia Anaya of Nuestras Raices, whose sister Christina passed away in 2018. We exchanged pleasantries, talked Flagstaff history and then went about our separate ways to observe the ofrendas. The woman, whose name escapes me now, held out a piece of foil. She called me her “young friend” and told me she had just eaten two tamales, that she hadn’t the stomach for her pan dulce, that she wanted me to have it. When I accepted the gift I told her my name, to which she gasped. Usually when I tell people my name, I’m met with, “Oh, did you know that’s a religious name?” or, “That’s my favorite angel.” But that was not the woman’s response. Instead, she let out a tear, quickly brushing it away, sniffing as she apologized. She went on to tell me that she had named her child Gabriel. He died. In the womb or shortly after he was born, I can’t remember.
She didn’t say much after that, and I knew very little of how to comfort this grieving woman. Quietly, we cried and listened to the mariachi band. She stared into the night, perhaps thinking of Gabriel, perhaps wondering, as I was, how unbelievably coincidental it was that on this very night in this very small town she’d meet a young man who had the same name as her deceased son. I placed a hand on her shoulder, and she reciprocated. Together we wept for the things we never had. And then she was gone.
Children with sugar skull face paintings skipped around the courtyard playing tag and singing nursery rhymes. An elderly couple swayed to the mariachi band. Underneath the moonlight, amid the smell of Abuelita hot chocolate and fresh tamales, surrounded by memories of my grandmother and of all the souls I’d never met, I thought of Gabriel, wherever he was, whoever he could have been. Holding the bread that could have been his, I cried.