I am celebrating Dia de Los Muertos (English: Day of the Dead) this year. Ethnically I am both Mexican and Black but never celebrated the Mexcian Holiday growing up. The holiday is also associated with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. I identify as a non-denominational Christian. I live very close to the Fruitvale District in Oakland, California and Dia de Los Muertos is a BIG DEAL. The entire neighborhood gets adorned with beautiful, bright-colored, paper mache marigolds wrapped around the light posts weeks before November 1st. In past years, Dia de Los Muertos has been celebrated with a huge festival that takes over International Boulevard. This area is already the home of some of the best Mexican restaurants in Oakland, but the festival hosts more food vendors. There is a concert stage, Indigenous dancers beating drums, full regalia with traditional headdress, it is a sight to see. You would see and smell sage, frankincense, and myrrh burning in the air. Kids are running around, old school cars shined to perfection have trunks filled with photos and memorabilia from loved ones. On East12th street, you will find row after row of altars (altars are physical displays) honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigold flowers, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Some people celebrate the holiday by visiting the gravesite of their loved ones or building home altars. It is a beautiful practice of remembering and celebrating the lives of very special people, loved ones, family, and friends.
I was so motivated I built an altar in my home this year for my loved ones, my family. On display, I have my Mama Veva, Bigmama, Uncle Greg, Cousin Tonya, Tio Ramon, Uncle Stanley, and Iris, my partner’s mother (see photo). It takes a bit of work collecting the photos, finding the flowers, coming up with a layout, and collecting the offerings. I have a dog so I can’t use real food. My display includes huge, pink Himalayan salt, water, and dark Godiva chocolates. I was so pleased. Knots began to form in my throat and I felt the tears welling up in my eyes.
Each one of my deceased family members is the reason why I sought a career as a Medical Social Worker working in acute care hospitals, to later become a therapist, open psychotherapy practices, and form Urban Health Group, a company focused on empowering BIPOC plan well for medical emergencies. I want you to know them.
Genoveva Vaca, my Mama Veva, my dad’s mother passed when she was 54 years old from diabetic-related complications. She was the quintessential matriarch, immigrated to the US from Michoacan, Mexico after my grandfather was accepted under the Bracero Program, with eight children in tow. I was young when she passed and sadly do not remember her at all. I hear stories of her loveliness, her deep voice, her determination, and diligence but have none of my own. When her health began to fail, my mother helped with her care. My mom said it was hard and sad but felt honored to do it. I was the youngest at that time, a toddler, so I had to accompany my mom on those 4 hours drives to Santa Maria. My mom said she was in so much pain, she would cry. After bathing her, she’d lay her down and me next to her at times. My mom said she’d smile as I would caress her arms while she lay down. What I know to be true as a therapist now, our preverbal experiences/ memories (the time before we knew how to talk) can have a lasting impact on us. I believe I truly learned how to be present and caring for others during difficult times. It has helped me to attune to the needs of others.
Marjorie Taylor, my Bigmama, my mother’s mom passed away when she was 67 years old while getting dialysis. She was my personal Queen, 5’10”, statuesque, beautifully dressed, and smile that seemed to stretch wider than the Pacific Ocean. Bigmama migrated from Marrieta, Georgia with her four children in the 1960s and never looked back. She remarried and started a church in Richmond, CA. I could write a book about her. I remember there were always people around, she’d be sitting and talking with people for hours, there were always meals shared and plans made. Six of my cousins lived with her. She helped strangers turn their lives around through transitional homes, vocational programs, block parties, and during holidays we’d go door-to-door giving out food to the community. I never understood how one person was available to so many. She always made me feel special, I’d stare at her, studying her, she’d look my way gently, felt like slow motion, flash a smile of acknowledgment and continue whatever she was doing. I learned to problem solve her. She was a visionary and always encouraged me to pursue my heart's desires to its greatest capacity.
My Tio Ramon passed away in his early 50s from Hepatitis C. He was the oldest of my father's siblings. My dad has shared with me how difficult it was acculturating to American culture and working in the field as day labor to contribute to the household. He looks like my dad, so I can see where my dad got his style. I was so happy that he was able to make amends with his two daughters, whom from some time were both raised with my family--I got two bonus sisters.
My Uncle Greg passed away in his 30s. I witnessed him have an epileptic seizure at Highland Hospital in Oakland (where I later became a social worker) that eventually led to his death from pneumonia. Hands down the best dressed, always neat, and smelled of cologne. He was known for being a jokester. I remain close to his oldest son, Greg Jr., who never forgets my birthday and the first card I receive.
My Uncle Stanley passed away at the age 61 years old. I was present, along with my other family member in the hospital. He was able to verbalize that he no longer wanted to be resuscitated. Uncle Stanley became septic from an unmanaged infection while hospitalized. Uncle Stanley moved back to the Bay Area after spending most of his life in Eugene, Oregon, and was an artist. He often asked me about why I was so interested in school, saying, “So you wanna know what makes people tick huh...well I’ll be your first client".
My Cousin Tonya passed away in her sleep at the age of 41; she was a wife and mother of two boys. Most people know her by her nickname “Too Sweet”. Tonya played slow jams loudly in the car and was the most reliable person I knew. I could stop by her house unannounced after work, and I was always welcomed and fed. She struggled with her health for many years, frequent hospital visits, and I was right there with my mom advocating the doctors to run certain additional tests. She felt unheard.
Iris Basquine, passed away August 20, 2020, at the age of 69 from multiple organ failure secondary to Multiple Myeloma. Iris is my partner’s mother. She was special to me. My mom and older sister's middle names are also Iris. I spent a lot of time with her over this last year. I knew she was hurting, the pain had gotten too bad in her back, she had to use a walker almost overnight. The decline happened rapidly. She took an interest in me beyond her son, she let me braid her hair, she texts me just to say hi, I loved making her laugh. Every holiday was celebrated elaborately throughout her home.
Some of my family members have struggled with managing their health and mental health needs, and I bear witness to their experiences. Culturally, there is a stigma around talking about personal struggles and seeking help in the Black and Latinx communities. So I can understand why they did not talk about theirs openly. And even when they were at the point of requiring medical attention, some experienced medical negligence and the others, the negative impacts of healthcare biases in the outright refusal of certain care options...or even the discussion on care options.
So often within the healthcare system, the human experiencing these affiliations gets lost; and only the sickness, complaint, or problem is visible.
I want you to know them. I want you to know my family: the people who struggled were parents, siblings, lovers, friends. I want you to know that they were loved. I know other people may have had similar experiences, I see you.
My family is the reason I created Urban Health Group LLC. Urban Health Group (UHG) was created to Empower Black, Indigenous, People of Color ( B.I.P.O.C.) with tools and support to effectively navigate their health and mental health needs for better wellness.
We are eliminating healthcare disparities and reducing healthcare biases for Black, Indigenous, People of Color & addressing healthcare biases head-on through strategic partnerships.
I am celebrating Dia de Los Muertos this year to remember my family members that have passed on. Their legacies will continue through the Urban Health Group. We empower Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) to have the understanding and tools to make confident decisions in establishing a solid plan to navigate medical emergencies and gain peace of mind for yourself and your loved ones while they are living.
To learn more about Dia de Los Muertos: https://dayofthedead.holiday/
To learn more about Urban Health Group LLC: https://www.urbanhealthgroupllc.com/