Connecting with Ancestors and Día de los Muertos

Previously published in the Independent

During a day-long celebration of the Day of the dead, Santa Barbara came to life. The community celebration and Oaxacan Calenda (procession with music and dancers and larger than life puppets) was something we had never experienced before as a community. I am very grateful to have participated in the procession and in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s pre-Calenda activities. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art outdid itself with altars and activities for the whole family. Many people sported their flower crowns and decorated skull necklaces. The Día de los Muertos activities made for a colorful audience. While people waited in costume for the calenda, some dropped by to hear poetry and song in the galleries.

I prepared a small altar in honor of my muertitos. The museum suggested three fifteen-minute sets of poetry and music. In hindsight this format would work better in longer sets. I was also dressed for the occasion and my flower and twig headdress made managing my microphone headset a challenge.

The first set focused on poems from How Fire Is a Story, Waiting and the companion song I had written for the book. The first audience was made up in large part by a tour group. A few friends attended and it was so nice having familiar faces in the audience. The museum’s tall ceilings meant that sound became dispersed. I made a mental note to purchase a proper microphone and stand for situations where one was not available.

An hour later, I presented my second set, which consisted of poems from Bird Forgiveness and the theme song, written for guitar. The Bird Forgiveness theme song was based on a poem, “What the Birds Know,” about my time taking care of my grandmother during her last month of life. I have many poems and songs that honor my deceased loved ones. I also presented a tune that was born a song, Love Always Wins. This was a big breakthrough for me because I am fairly new to playing music and writing songs. I wrote my first song four years ago. I wrote Love Always Wins this past summer after a friend suddenly passed away.

Some of my favorite poems have been assignments or requests. Many people ask me what is it I do as Poet Laureate and a large part of the Poet Laureate duties is to write poems for various occasions or institutions. I wrote an inaugural poem when I was installed as Poet Laureate at City Hall, a poem for the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and, recently a poem for Perla Batalla, who asked if I wanted to read poetry during the musical interlude of her La Llorona set at the Margorie Luke Theater. I was thrilled because I’ve been a longtime fan of Perla Batalla and her music. She has gorgeous voice. Her version of the song La Llorona is a favorite. Reading the poem on stage with her and her band and daughter was a dream.

My third set for the Día de los Muertos celebration was my La Lllorona set. I read the poem that I had written for Perla and played the companion song that composed. In the mythology of La Llorona, she is a woman who wanders and hollers in search of her children. There are different stories, in one of the more popular stories, La Llorona (she who cries) drowns her children because her lover does not want them. In my poem, La Llorona is tasked with helping the children who have crossed the border and who are alone. She is redeemed. I was humbled to be able to share this poem and song as part of the Santa Barbra Museum of Art’s Día de los Muertos celebration. By the third set, the audience was filled with people in costume, faces painted, everyone was ready for the Calenda procession to paseo nuevo and the Museum of Contemporary Art for the final stop with tamales and aguas frescas.