Boxes of Ashes

Boxes of Ashes


México lindo y querido,

si muero lejos de tí,

que digan que estoy dormido

y que me traigan aquí.

—Chucho Monge, 1940

1. Jorge Negrete, Mexico’s singing charro, recorded this song in 1940,
2. but it wasn’t until his death in 1953 that the song became famous.
3. Negrete died in LA at the age of 42. His wish was for his lifeless

4. body to be returned to his homeland. He had recorded that wish 13
5. years prior, in that song about dying away from home, which says:
6. Mexico, beautiful and beloved, if I die far from you, tell them I’m

7. only asleep and to bring me back to you. My mother was afraid of
8. dying in the US because her family would have no access to her final
9. resting place. We traveled back to Zacapu, Michoacán because she

10. knew she was dying. She died in 1982, a few months after we
11. arrived. My mother was 31 years old. She died in a car en route to a
12. hospital in Morelia. The songwriter, Chucho Monge, was born in

13. Morelia, but is buried in Mexico City. He’s buried in the cemetery
14. for notable Mexican figures, the Panteón Jardín. Negrete is also
15. buried there though he was from the state of Queretaro. Negrete’s

16. actor-singer compadres, Pedro Infante and Javier Solís—collectively
17. known as Los Tres Gallos Mexicanos—are also buried there.
18. Infante died 4 years after Negrete. Infante died at age 39 while co-

19. piloting a plane that crashed in Yucatán. Solís died, 9 years after
20. Infante, from complications after gallbladder surgery. Solís, the last
21. of Los Tres Gallos Mexicanos, was 34 when he died. Panteón Jardín

22. is also the resting place of the great Spanish poet Luis Cernuda and
23. of Salvador Novo, the great Mexican writer. Both were openly gay
24. and both died in their 60s. Cernuda left Spain in 1938, at the onset

25. of the Spanish Civil War. He lived in the UK, the US, and finally
26. Mexico, where he died in 1963. Federico García Lorca, Cernuda’s
27. good friend, was killed in 1936 at the age of 38. Lorca was killed for

28. being an activist, and for being gay. Cernuda died in exile and Lorca
29. was killed at home. My father’s parents died 7 years apart. Abuelo,
30. who was born in California, died there in 2004, at age 77. Abuela,

31. who was born in Michoacán, died in California in 2011, at age 82.
32. They’re buried together in Coachella, a town they didn’t like. Abuela
33. did not want to die in the US. She didn’t want to be buried here

34. either. Abuela’s dying wish was to spend her last days walking
35. through the streets of Zacapu, a goat cheese sandwich in her hand.
36. She wanted to buried in Nahuatzen, her hometown, or in Cherán, or

37. in Tzintzuntzan, where our Purépecha relatives have loved, lived,
38. and died for generations. My mother and Abuela would have known
39. “México lindo y querido,” because they both loved Jorge Negrete.

40. But in our home, the anthem was “Caminos de Michoacán.” This
41. song was written by Bulmaro Bermúdez, who was born in
42. Michoacán the same year as Abuela. The first man to sing it was

43. Federico Villa, who was also from Michoacán. He first sang it in
44. 1974, and is still singing it. The song is about a man returning from
45. distant lands to reconnect with his sweetheart, but she has since

46. moved on so now he’s searching for her, town by town: “Caminos de
47. Michoacán/ y pueblos que voy pasando,/ si saben en dónde está/
48. porqué me le están negando.” The love story isn’t what appealed to

49. my family, but the roll call: La Piedad, Pátzcuaro, Sahuayo,
50. Zitácuaro, Apatzingán, Morelia. The song also names Zamora,
51. Villa’s birthplace, and Ario de Rosales, Bermúdez’s hometown.

52. Michoacán towns triggered our nostalgia, and we longed even for
53. the places we only knew by name. After I turned 50, I began to
54. appreciate how important it was to choose where to die, or where

55. to be buried, if one had that choice at all. I was born in California,
56. like Abuelo, but I grew up in Zacapu. Like my mother, I want to
57. come home in the end, but not to a burial. I’ll be cremated. In 2018,

58. I had my mother’s remains exhumed, then moved to the church
59. crypt. Her burial place at the overcrowded Panteón San Franciscano
60. was crumbling with neglect. In the unit where her ashes are kept,

61. there’s space for 3 more urns: for her parents, who are still alive,
62. and for me, her gay son. The Vatican decried cremation, until we
63. ran out of space. They approved cremation in 1963. Except ashes

64. cannot be scattered to the winds or divided among grieving
65. relatives; they have to be housed in a holy place. My father died in
66. 2006. His ashes were handed to his second wife, who kept them

67. atop the TV. I knew my father wanted his ashes scattered at el Cerro
68. del Tecolote, the prominent mountain visible from any Zacapu
69. neighborhood. He’d go hunting there on Sundays and our family

70. hiked up afterwards to eat the kill, usually squirrels, opossums, and
71. garter snakes. We didn’t go to church on Sundays. After a short
72. time atop the TV, my father’s ashes were scattered unceremoniously

73. behind his house in Mexicali, a border town he didn’t like. My
74. mother’s urn was a simple pine box with a cross and a nameplate
75. but with her maiden name. A box doesn’t tell the full story of a life

76. lived, just the story of a life come to an end. By the end of summer
77. of 2020, the US had over 18o,000 coronavirus deaths, which
78. included foreigners in the country, like the workers from Mexico.

79. On July 13, the Mexican consulate of NYC presided over the
80. repatriation ceremony of 200+ victims of COVID-19. The urns were
81. covered in black cloth, a white ribbon, and a white rose. The dead

82. were essential workers: health care providers, food service
83. employees, and custodians. 105 were from the state of Puebla.
84. There are so many Poblanos in NYC, more than from any other

85. state in Mexico. They live here, they die here, but some don’t want
86. to stay here. The 105 dead returned home, taking 105 unfinished
87. dreams with them. Burial at home no longer matters to the dead

88. but it makes all the difference to the living. Juan Gabriel, Mexico’s
89. greatest singer-songwriter died in 2016. He died in Santa Monica,
90. preparing for a concert. His ashes were returned to his adoptive

91. home, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. But the people of Parácuaro,
92. Michoacán, where he was born, protested. That he was gay was only
93. discussed in public after his death. But everyone knew. And now

94. that everyone says it, nobody cares. His songs are my anthems,
95. particularly “Se me olvidó otra vez.” It was recorded the same year
96. as “Caminos de Michoacán.” The song opens: “Probablemente ya,/

97. de mi te has olvidado,” addressing a lover who has gone away. The
98. heartbroken speaker promises to wait in the same town so that if
99. the lover returns, their reunion is certain. For me, the speaker is

100. Mexico. I’m the unrequited love who fled to another country,
101. but hopes to return, a gay man’s ashes in a box, to rejoin his
102. mother/motherland. The ending: “Que nunca volverás/ que nunca

103. me quisiste/ se me olvidó otra vez/ que solo yo te quise.” It has to
104. be true: no one misses me, dead or alive, like the place called home.
105. Or welcomes me back, dead or alive, like México, México, mi amor.

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