Whatever the reason, we were a Texas-based Mexican American household that didn’t build marigold-adorned ofrendas, or altars dedicated to the people we loved and lost.
We didn’t fill those sacred spaces with candles, sugar skulls and sweet treats. We didn’t cover them with photos of relatives, friends and other people whose lives, before they ended, had touched ours.
But as an adult, whenever the calendar nears Nov. 1 and 2, those post-Halloween days when the Day of the Dead is celebrated, I find myself making a mental ofrenda. I find myself thinking about the photographs that would fill mine.
It may sound like a morbid exercise, but it is not. The Mexican holiday, which may date back thousands of years, is about honor and remembrance.
It is about putting into practice that often tossed-around phrase “never forget.”
Before I was a columnist, I wrote about a lot of deaths. I covered crime for years, and knocking on doors and calling strangers during their worst moments is part of that beat.
Now, as a columnist, I can choose what subjects I cover. Still, I write often about people who have died too soon or senselessly. I do that because I believe telling a community about someone they lost acknowledges that person existed and that they mattered. It also allows people to see the cracks around them that others are falling through.
Lately, I’ve been wondering what a communal ofrenda in the Washington region might look like.
Whose faces would stare back at us?
What mementos would it hold?
Tradition calls for leaving objects on the altar that would be meaningful to the person who died. That might be lyrics to a beloved song or a tiny bottle of a favorite drink. For children, it is usually toys.
In the past few years, the region has experienced a lot of loss. Covid-19 alone has taken greedily. But some of the most senseless and concerning deaths have been the result of gun violence, and among those victims, the most painful and infuriating losses have involved children.
The shameful truth is this: If the D.C. region created a communal ofrenda, an entire section would be crowded with toys.
Día de los Muertos spans two days, but the first is known as “Día de los Angelitos” — Day of the little Angels — and is dedicated to honoring children who have died.
In case your memory, like mine, has become less reliable during the pandemic, here is a reminder of some of the region’s angelitos taken by gun violence in recent years.
Nyiah Courtney was 6 when she was shot and killed in July while walking in her Southeast neighborhood with her mother, father and older sister. On the day of Nyiah’s funeral, her older sister reportedly stepped up to her casket, hugged her body and cried so loudly it echoed through the church.
That funeral took place on Aug. 18.
Days later, on Aug. 24, Peyton John Evans, an 8-year-old known as “PJ,” was killed in the Landover area as he sat at a living room table playing video games with his cousin. He had reportedly been excited that day because his team had won a football scrimmage and it was Taco Tuesday. Then a bullet tore through a glass patio door and hit him.
A relative described him as “a gentle soul, a big old teddy bear.”
Before those losses, there was 1-year-old Carmelo Duncan, who was fatally shot as he sat strapped in a car seat.
There was 11-year-old Davon McNeal, who was killed while walking to get ear buds from a relative’s residence. He was in that Southeast Washington neighborhood because his mother had organized an anti-violence cookout.
There were many more — too many.
I know it would be easier to stop thinking about these children, but that’s why it’s important for us to take a moment to remember them. And what better time to do that than on a day that calls for us to think about the children we lost?
Oct. 31 is a day for kids to dress up and trick-or-treat. (I have two little boys who are so excited about Halloween that they’ve been trying on their costumes for weeks, as if they might suddenly outgrow them.)
But Nov. 1 calls for us to think about those children who won’t get that chance.
After each of those deaths I mentioned above, mourners lit candles, lawmakers gave speeches and people called for the violence to stop.
And then, bullets flew again.
The homicide count in D.C. is on track to hit a 17-year-high. If we look away from the children whom violence has already claimed, and do nothing to keep the pressure on lawmakers or support anti-violence efforts that show promise, we know what will happen.
That section of our ofrenda will continue to grow.
Read more from Theresa Vargas: