Your ancestors are speaking. Are you listening?
Cocktails, costumes, and cartoons. Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is peak “mainstream” culture, even if some people aren’t clear on the meaning of the holiday. It’s all good – we’re here to share and learn from each other, and the more we all reflect on the connection between this world and what comes next, the more we can focus collectively on what matters most: nuestros queridos, our loved ones – past, present, and future.
Even though I founded Nopalera with the mission of celebrating and elevating Latin@ culture through our amazing cactus-based botanicals, I’ve never claimed to speak for all Latin@s, all Mexican Americans, or even all Californians. Like any other holiday, Día de los Muertos has elements that vary from country to country, city to city, and family to family. We each have our own way of celebrating, but what’s shared is the intention: to remember those who have passed in order to keep them alive, and to stay connected to them across the invisible border between life and death.
So what does this holiday mean to me? Honoring the past… and looking to the future.
Growing up in San Diego in a Mexican American household, I assumed that everyone everywhere set up ofrendas to honor their dead at the beginning of November. In my family's case, over the years we celebrated grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and even beloved musicians who’d provided the soundtrack to our lives. We added photos, sweets, water, mezcal, flowers, candles, and papel picado. We sat with our dead, either literally at their graves or by our at-home altars. We told stories about them and laughed at things we’d never heard or things we’d heard a thousand times before. More than anything, we gave them – and ourselves – the one thing we could never get back: time together.
By setting aside time to remember those who have left us, we reconnect to all the joy, grief, love, and lessons they have to offer, no matter how long ago they passed. We reach across the generations because we understand that everyone and everything in this world is connected. We open our hearts and ears to listen to the wisdom that has been passed down over centuries.
How else would we have gotten where we are today?
How else would we know the secrets of the nopal? Who taught us that we could eat it, make textiles from it, and use it to hydrate our skin and hair?
Los que vinieron antes. The ancestors. They have so much to share with us.
As a working mom and entrepreneur, I’ve had to follow a harder road than a lot of so-called “bootstrapped” companies. I started Nopalera from scratch (at the beginning of a pandemic) with no money, no investors, and no network. All I had was an idea, and a passion for creating a bath and body brand that put Latin@ products where they belong: on luxury shelves.
But I also had the voices of my ancestors.
Let’s get real: no one – AND I MEAN NO ONE – is 100% self-made. I come from a long line of strong, Mexican and Mexican American women and men whose spirits have guided me, even when I didn’t realize it. They are that flash of inspiration, that creative spark, that invisible support that says, “Sigue, mija.” Keep going.
So even though I built Nopalera without the financial and commercial resources of other companies, I was able to draw upon the resilience of generations of folks who paved the way. They survived against all odds. They thrived in spite of the harshest conditions. They were resilient, like the nopal itself. And they kept moving forward, having faith in a future that they knew they’d never see.
They are the ones that made all of this possible. If I am self-made, it is because everyone before me provided a foundation. Even though they are muertos, they are part of my community.
At Nopalera, we talk a lot about community – not just our community of loyal customers (you!), but also the community we create at work. From the start, I knew I wanted to establish a workplace that valued each team member, and one that people were excited to be a part of. I wanted to provide a space for ambitious people – especially women and especially Latin@s – to feel seen and heard and supported in their own dreams and aspirations. The team today is a reflection of that idea. Yes, I’m building a business, but together we are building a legacy. We are expanding definitions of who we are, and who we’re “allowed” to be.
That spirit of expansion flows through Día de los Muertos celebrations as well. It allows us to increase our idea of community to include everyone who has come before us. We recognize that their struggle is our struggle, that their strength is our strength, that we are continuing the work they did before us and that others did before them.
When we tap into that level of community, we are unstoppable.
A very close friend of mine died a few years ago. There are some days when I feel like I’m still in the middle of an endless chain of text messages with her. Most days I feel as close to her as I am to the people I see “in real life.” Something small will make me think of her, and I smile, knowing exactly what she would say and how she would say it. She is still with me, still laughing and dancing and cheering me on.
Do I miss her? Of course. Every day. Losing a loved one creates an incredibly specific pocket of emptiness that we carry around with us for the rest of our lives. The intention of Día de los Muertos isn’t to pretend that our relationship with the deceased is exactly as it was or would have been. We’re not trying to trick ourselves. But it opens the door to a new way of living with the dead instead of burying them and trying to forget them, as if they never existed.
The idea that we should “move on” or “get over it” when someone dies is much more of a trick, and a brutal one. Do not ask me to “move on” without my friend, or my grandmother, or anyone else I’ve lost. I will move forward knowing that they are still with me, just in a different way. Let the billionaires in Silicon Valley work on storing their consciousnesses on a server somewhere so their loved ones can connect to them “forever.” Those of us who understand how to live with our dead have been doing this for generations.
I said before that part of what Día de los Muertos means to me is honoring the past, but the other part is looking to the future. Tradition is a beautiful thing, and preserving it is especially important in the face of erasure or forced assimilation. As immigrants or children or grandchildren of immigrants, many of us navigate these issues every day. But culture cannot be frozen in time – not only is it impossible, it’s also not what the ancestors would want!
We honor our ancestors best by evolving – by continuing to grow, to adapt, and to learn.
Our ideas about who we are as individuals and as communities – how we define ourselves, how we let others define us – will continue to shift and expand with each generation, and that’s a good thing. Being in touch with those who came before us can help us distinguish what’s essential, as well as what needs to evolve.
I realize that not all of you reading this post have grown up with Día de los Muertos as part of your cultural or family traditions. Are you “allowed” to celebrate? ¡ Claro ! Paint your face, dress up, attend a party, and drink a special cocktail. But also…. take some time to create your own private ofrenda honoring those you’ve lost. Reflect on what they continue to mean to you even though they’re “gone” (p.s.: they’re not gone). Celebrate all the ways in which they still influence your life. Visit their grave or a place that was special to them. Leave space to listen for their guidance. Do this alone or with friends and family who knew them.
This year, as every year, I’ll be remembering my loved ones who’ve passed – and the ancestors I’ve never met. I’ll thank them for guiding me through the stresses and challenges of the last year. I’ll create an ofrenda to make them feel welcome in my home and in my life, and invite them to keep me company during my brief time on earth. Then I’ll meditate on the legacy of love, strength, and resilience I’m hoping to leave for future generations.
I’d love to hear who will you honor this November. Tell me their stories and how you connect with them, this day and every day.
Que todos descansen en paz,
Written by Eileen Willis