The first of November has just passed, the only day of the year in which families migrate en masse to holy grounds and the various cemeteries that the marketplace of death has on offer. If on that day you don’t go, if instead you stay in bed watching the very ordinary TV broadcast, if drowsiness wins and you don’t pay tribute to those who are absent, then you will feel a claw press against your chest, leaving you with a heavy heart. That happened to me this week, and it’s because my mami used to say that, around this time of year, the forgotten tombs would always look so sad, full of weeds coming up through their cracks. Tombs split and cracked open where spiders weave and undo their spindles of gauze. Dead tombs where the moss bleeds on the gravestones like so much rust on metal. Tombs where no flowers brighten up the mortuary carnival that is this public holiday. This is the reason I left off early this morning, to the Metropolitan Cemetery, which borders the Panamericana Sur. The truth is that, although it is far, and I have to do a thousand pirouettes, getting on and getting off of the Transantiago1, it is the best possible resting place for my mother’s remains, because she is surrounded by so much floral merriment. It is the best, most humble earth where the decorative variety, a party of colours, flanks the tombs, in-line, in a last goodbye. My mami always asked to be there. I want to be with the poor, together with those of my class, she would say. She always found the scenery of this cemetery to be so cheerful and generous. The prole2 spend fortunes on bouquets of calla lilies, chrysanthemums, gypsy deep rose, and on so many other types of fresh petals offered by the ladies that sell flowers on the side of the street.
Bouquets for 1000, boss.
But these flowers look more wilted than I do.
It’s the heat, boss.
It looks like you make these bunches out of leftovers.
Well, if you want them, then you can take them.
And they keep singing out the tired melody of their flowery offerings: sempervivums, snapdragons, madonna lilies, lilies, dianthus. The ladies run around all day with the flowers in their hands, in their hair, paper-flowers on the tribute cards, saying ‘Mum, I remember you’. Plastic flowers on the flag that prays: ‘grandpa, why did you leave?’ The ladies run back and forward like paper windmills made out of sunflowers that spin in the mouldy tombs of a departed childhood. More: the plaster figure of a dog and sun-bleached teddy bears hanging from the cross of a little angel3 that has died. Mum wanted to be in the Metropolitan cemetery, where her mother was, amongst many good neighbours, like Mario Palestro4, miss María5 and the market next door selling hot dogs at 500 pesos and mote con huesillos6, 2 glasses for 1000 pesos. It was a good choice to leave her in the pop-commotion of that urban mourning. Upon her tomb I had this phrase engraved: ‘here I will remain, forever tied to your remains, mama‘; but the engraver did not want to write my name on the tombstone, because it’s against the law to include the names of the living. But he wrote it anyway. I thought to myself: Whoever knows me and reads this phrase as they pass by will leave a flower on this maternal abode. And there you stayed, Violeta Lemebel, after so much loving, smiling and dancing to the tango of this wretched life.
The day of the dead in the Metropolitan cemetery is a carnival where the poor adorn their sorrows until their sorrows become baroque objects. They seem to console themselves by accumulating Christmas knick-knacks around an altar for the deceased. Butterflies from Hong Kong and doves from Taiwan shine on the tombs. And even the tears shine like Christmas lights on the cheeks of the mourners. My mami, Violeta, wanted to be here, near a group of gypsies. She loved gypsies, they suffer so much, but they dance and sing their weary expatriation. And it was almost a miracle that the tombs of the Nicolich7 surrounded her sepulchre. They come in their vehicles, with their sunshades and umbrellas, rolling out the rugs where the gypsy ladies sit, with their golden and turquoise veils. And there, they spend all day, drinking mate, yelling in Romaní at their zíngaro children playing between the tombs. Sometimes the gypsies sing. Sometimes a thick tear rolls down the creased cheek of a matriarch. Sometimes the gypsies, my mother’s neighbours, sing, and a young woman shakes her hips in the afternoon. Sometimes the gypsies sing and they cheer-up the twilight, as I leave the cemetery, after leaving a bouquet of violets at my mother’s resting place.
- Santiago’s recently integrated public transport system. ↩
- Prole, from proletariat: a reflexive reference (Lemebel includes himself in this group) that Lemebel uses to refer to the working classes of Chile. ↩
- Angelitos in Latin America are babies that die before being baptised. Customs vary locally, but in Chile there is an elaborate mourning ritual and Lemebel is referring here to this phenomenon. For more information see: ‘El velorio del angelito: la otra cara del luto’, Krítika, Santiago: mayo–junio, 1998. ↩
- Mario Palestro (1921–2000) was a popular Chilean politician tied to the Socialist Party of Chile and successfully elected to different political offices in the years between 1949–1973. He was especially active in the working class area of Santiago that Lemebel was raised in. After 1973 he was placed on the Pinochet’s list of the top 10 most dangerous enemies of the state and exiled to Norway, where he organized the Chilean resistance. He returned to Chile in 1988 and, an ever-popular figure and much loved in his native Santiago, was elected once again as a local representative in 1989. He served from 1990 to 1994. ↩
- Miss: señora/doña – expressions used in Chile out of formality to refer to people who are older than the person speaking. In this case Lemebel’s Señora María is a reference to one of his mother’s friends. ↩
- A popular and traditional Chilean drink, usually sold on the street. ↩
- Nicolich is a reference to the surname of one of the most prominent gypsy families of Chile. ↩