YouTube found “Havana” by Camila Cabello just for me and I liked it. I listed to it again and again. Havana’s story arch — punctuated with laughter and complete with happy ending — drew me right in. The video switches back and forth, from English to Spanish.
Because I liked “Havana”, YouTube brought me other bi-lingual music videos. I liked those so YouTube presented Spanish only videos, including ones featuring Natalia LaFourcade. Her voice is so pure and her songs so compelling, I was briefly convinced that I must be the last person in the whole world to know about her. Even if you, like me, don’t understand Spanish, surely you know Natalia LaFourcade!
LaFourcado’s “La Llorona” opens with graceful guitar lines and waltzes into a haunting song. A figure draped with an embroidered shawl flits about cemeteries, churches, and streets during Day of the Dead. Candles flicker by tombstones decked with flowers and Marigold petals drift from a child’s hand. Faces in the street are painted like skulls.
When I visited Oaxaca during Day of the Dead, I could feel things happening all around me. But it was like being color blind in front of a peacock. The solemnity passed through me, a sigh of mystery, incomprehensible, foreign.
In a house with the rooms built around an open courtyard, two elderly women sat at a long dining room table, drinking mescal with their late husbands, whose faces smiled from faded photographs decked with flowers. In a cometary after dark, families picnicked on grave sites, sharing food with the dearly departed. Something was happening, but I couldn’t say what.
The song La Llorona was an echo of that feeling. But I thought maybe I could pin it down.
An internet search supplied three different English translations of LaFourcade’s lyrics — different being the key word. At least two of the translations had to be wrong. According to Wikipedia, La Llorona is the legendary Mexican ghost, The Weeping Woman who drowned her own children. The traditional folk-song version has many verses, with multiple interpretations.Death, Life, Loss, and Love are all in there, but they slide around. It is a folksong with a number of meanings. I could forget about pinning it down.
Death, Life, Loss, and Love were also the underpinnings of a lengthy phone conversation between my uncle and me the other night. He would ask me, Do you remember your grandparents’ house on Markley Street? Your Great Grandmother Creager? Her mother, Grandma Clark, who saw Abraham Lincoln from her father’s shoulders? Our Grandmother Barnard? I remember them all. I can pick them out in photos and home movies. They are the main characters in family stories.
My father’s and my uncle’s perspectives are different, so even when they tell the same story, it is not exactly the same. But the woman shine. The stories of these strong women nurtured me. It makes sad to know that someday a descendant will pick up a photo of Grandma Clark without knowing who she was or the courage she wielded as a young widow.
Marigolds, candles, and mescal will not summon any of my grandmothers or my father for a visit, even on Day of the Dead. And I wouldn’t know it if they did? It’s outside our tradition and copying the trappings from Day of the Dead won’t bring us into a space where we will know each other again.
But, even in Oaxaca, someone must remember you to put out your photograph. Someday, no one will remember you or put out your photograph and you, and all your stories, will be truly gone from this world.