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Choirs of angles join the geometry of clan


Recently my tia Consuelo passed away: my great-aunt who, as a child, performed with her sister and father in the carpas, the tent circuses of Mexico. I didn’t know her as well as I knew her sister, Tia Elvira, who gave me a thick notebook of skits and poems her father wrote for their performances. Tia Elvira and I shared a passion for traditional folk remedies. She kept fish eyes in her freezer. I was so taken by the sight I forgot what she prescribed them for.

She also kept herbs in her shed. Some of these she had purchased “over there,” she said, pointing south with chin and pursed lips toward a neighbor’s house. That was how she referred to Mexico. I half expected to turn around and see Juarez looming through the window of her home in Albuquerque’s south valley.

Most branches of my family are rooted, thanks to land grants, in the New Mexico soil, dating back hundreds of years. My tias, however, were born in California and raised in Mexico. And their half-sister, my grandma Maria de Jesus, was born in Mexico and brought up in the Southwest. Grandma often took a daylong bus ride to Mexico for church meetings; like her siblings, she drew a borderless map in my mind in which Mexico abutted Albuquerque.

I went to the wake at St. Anne’s Catholic Church to pay my respects to my tia Consuelo, and -- having relocated to New Mexico after a decade -- to reconnect with family members. I introduced myself to distant relatives. “Yo soy la hija de Teodoro y Dolores.” Two women approached me, all smiles. “Did you say you were the daughter of Ted? We’re Lela and Lola. Our mother was Ofelia, the sister of your grandpa Luis, who was our uncle!”

I’ve come to live for such moments, which are frequent in New Mexico. Someone tosses out a name, and we connect the dots. Second cousin? Third cousin? Something else altogether? At a reading a woman came up to me and said, “My grandpa was Esequiel. He would have been, let’s see, the brother of your father’s father, my great-uncle.” I joyfully signed her book as I did the math in my head. There’s nothing in the world quite like the geometry of clan.

I entered St. Anne’s Catholic Church with my cousin, Cecile. So many of our elders have died that it falls to us, the next generation, to make the round of rosaries, to help reweave the web of family. We embraced our great-uncle. We approached our aunt’s coffin and whispered our farewells.

“She looks just like she’s asleep,” I said, reaching for the nearest cliché to stem my sorrow. I wondered about her life, the stories told but especially those untold. The passing of an elder is like the destruction of a wing of the Smithsonian. Some things remain depressingly irretrievable.

Mercifully, tears and mirth often team up at religious affairs. Tia Consuelo did not disappoint.

We took our place in the pews. I gazed down at my aunt’s holy card, which bore a beautiful image of a dark brown Virgin of Guadalupe, de facto goddess of Mexico, much as the church hierarchy won’t hear of it.

I flipped the card over. The prayer for the dearly deceased read: “May the Angles lead you into Paradise, may the Martyrs receive you … May the choirs of Angles receive you and may you, with the once poor Lazarus, have rest everlasting.” I elbowed my cousin and pointed out the mortuary’s typo. We bowed our heads. There is no laughter as sweet as that which one must swallow inside a church.

“At least it didn’t say choirs of Anglos,” my sister later observed.

Anglos, angles, angels: by whatever name, a diverse crowd will greet my tia. Grandma Maria de Jesus belonged to a Spanish Assemblies of God church. Tia Elvira was a Mormon. My great-grandpa Trinidad was a founding member of a Presbyterian church. They anticipated the dispersal we see today as Latinos leave the church for other faiths -- even as we make up nearly 40 percent of the Catholic population. We are not the church’s “children,” and when the church -- from hierarchy to rank and file -- treats us as such, we walk.

By all accounts, my aunt loved her faith. She received Communion not long before she died. Thankfully, our Mexican heritage teaches us to revere, not fear death. For this reason, toward the end of October, many of us construct elaborate altars for el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

This practice has grown in New Mexico in large part due to the influx of Mexican immigrants. Around Albuquerque, candles burn before photos of relatives who’ve passed on. Artists and activists place candy before images of Frida Kahlo and Emiliano Zapata. A class at the University of New Mexico’s Spanish-Portuguese department is honoring the women maquiladora workers of Juarez who have been murdered by the dozens in a still unsolved mystery.

So here’s to you, in loving memory: Tia Consuelo, Senator Paul Wellstone and poet June Jordan. Embolden us to break down the borders that wound. And wherever you are, welcome home.

Demetria Martinez lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Her latest book is The Devil’s Workshop (University of Arizona Press).

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002