The Sugar Skull of my Soul

My aunt taught me not to be a cultural appropriation asshole by teaching me about other cultures all while feeding me sugar-skull cookies, and by celebrating Dia de Los Muertos despite the scoffs and side-eyes that our family gave her every beginning of November. 


My aunt was born and raised in the “Heel of Italy,” also known as Bari, Italy, with her five older siblings and eventually, ten years after she was born, her younger brother my grandfather.


She always had a taste for travel and exploration. I feel if she was allowed to be educated past secondary school she would have chosen to become a travel journalist or a cultural anthropologist because she taught me everything I know about culture.


And there was no cultural holiday that my Aunt Nikki loved more than Día de los Muertos.

Day of the Dead is an interesting holiday celebrated in central and southern Mexico during the chilly days of November 1 & 2. They believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 1st, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.

Special Masses and perhaps cleaning of the cemetery tombs are part of the traditional activities. In Central and Southern Mexico the colorful parties take place in the cemeteries and elaborate ofrenda altars are built in the homes to honor specific family members who have passed on.

On the afternoon of Nov. 2, the festivities are taken to the cemetery. People clean tombs, play cards, listen to the village band and reminisce about their loved ones. Tradition keeps the village close. Day of the Dead is becoming very popular in the U.S. ~ perhaps because we don’t have a way to celebrate and honor our dead, or maybe it’s because of our fascination with its mysticism.

My aunt would have me drive her to the cemetery in the weeks leading up to Día de los Muertos and we would spend our days decorating the graves of those forgotten graves never visited before - and my aunt’s grave that had been placed in a cemetery since the mid 80’s always got the most extravagant decor. I always cried while decorating, I never wanted to become one of the graves no one visits anymore that I put a rose and sugar skull down on each year.

This is the first year I’ve gone to the cemetery to decorate alone. 

My aunt passed away a week before the day we scheduled to decorate the graves. She had a big funeral, many people had admired my aunt and as always Italian funerals were huge, and when I was given my minute to speak, instead of sticking to script and talking about how she confirmed me I held out a sugar skull cupcake and dedicated it to her and the many souls she helped travel to visit their still-live loved ones.

I’m writing this article in the cemetery next to the freshest plot of dirt buried, my aunt’s grave to my right and a basket of roses and sugar skulls on my left.

I have a strange feeling that everything is going to just fine.