Day of the Dead approaches. And, once again, the only place I can go to see an altar is my own living room, where a less-than-adequate wooden replica sits on a bookcase.
Every year, I promise myself that I will build my own altar, or ofrenda, for Nov. 2, known as All Souls' Day in these parts. But my essential gringa-ness stands in the way. It would seem ironic at best, affected at worst, to appropriate this Mexican custom. The candles would pose a fire hazard. And, as far as I know, there is no place to buy dead bread or sugar skulls in Baltimore, although I hear you can find them in Washington.
Day of the Dead -- Dia de los Muertos -- celebrates the lives of those no longer living. It mixes the Catholicism of the Spanish conquerors with the indigenous religions of those they conquered. In recent years, as Mexicans have moved to the United States, they have brought this custom with them, creating more confusion. With its skeletons and proximity to Halloween, Day of the Dead is often mistaken for a spook show. But there is nothing scary about Day of the Dead, although it can be quite haunting. In its straightforward acceptance of death, and its blurring of the line between life and after-life, the day makes one feel better about lost relatives and friends.
Earlier this month, at a tiny folk art store in San Antonio, I happened on the altar for its proprietor, Danny Lozano. Danny sold me many of the odd things in my home over the years, and I always return to his store, Tienda Guadalupe, on my annual visits to San Antonio. Over the years, my purchases included Frida Kahlo T-shirts, a papier-mache Judas figure, Virgen de Guadalupe earrings, skeleton figures, crosses for my sister's burgeoning collection.
With each visit, each acquisition, I charted the disappearance of Danny Lozano's voice. A rasp, then a whisper, then nothing at all. The last time I saw him, he took a wall calendar down, pantomiming that he wanted me to have it, a little extra something for being such a good customer. That was the custom there. He died last fall, about a month after my last visit to San Antonio.
In the hospital, in his morphine haze, I was told, Danny had one moment of clarity. "The Day of the Dead," he said, "this year it's for me." Then he lapsed back into a coma.
And so there in the store was the altar, with all the usual decorations of marigolds and votive candles, but also the things Danny might be looking for. A beer, a Snickers, a pack of cigarettes, a Big Red soda. ("It's not strawberry," according to an old jingle, "It's really not cherry. It just tastes red!") My relationship with Danny had never advanced much beyond proprietor and customer. Now, through his altar, I knew him much better.
Tienda Guadalupe sits about a mile from a far more famous San Antonio altar to the dead -- the Alamo. Sandwiched between hotels, across the street from Woolworth's and Burger King, the old mission is the ultimate ofrenda, filled with things that the 180-plus defenders might want to see if they came back -- photographs, toy models, a Bowie knife or two. It also has beautiful gardens and doesn't cost a cent to visit.
Yet it has always been fashionable, especially for out-of-town journalists, to deride the Alamo. Too small, too commercial. Bad location. Me, my only complaint is that Woolworth's discontinued its blue Alamo dinnerware before I got service for eight.
What do people want from memorials? Why is the simple wall erected for Vietnam War veterans the highlight of so many Washington visits? Why does Fort McHenry still thrill me? On the trip that took me to San Antonio, a 4,000-mile drive through the South, we had seen some of the region's most celebrated monuments to death. We had paid $8 to see Graceland, where no one complained about commercialism. We had driven by the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, now a museum, and watched people peer out the window of his room. We had seen the famous cemeteries in New Orleans, stared across the water at Fort Sumter, walked past the clock tower at the University of Texas. For me, only the Alamo and the Lorraine Motel were truly satisfying.
Perhaps the disgruntled tourists at the Alamo want some distance from their memorials, as if space will make them special. They want velvet ropes and tour guides droning "Don't touch." Or they need places to be slightly inaccessible, requiring a special van or boat, so they know they have gone somewhere.
Graceland and Fort Sumter fill that bill. The Alamo and the Lorraine Motel do not. Close, intimate, flush up against daily life, they sit in downtown areas where one can stumble into them almost accidentally. They are America's Day of the Dead altars, too close for comfort.
Laura Lippman is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.