Day of the Dead: Celebrating My Feminine Heritage

Tomorrow is Day of the Dead.

While it is not part of my culture, I find myself wishing that it was.

If you are unfamiliar with it, Day of the Dead  is celebrated in many Hispanic cultures to honor the ancestors who have gone before them.  In Mexican culture there are beautiful colorful graphics with ‘sugar skulls’.  The dead are celebrated with flowers, their favorite foods (sometimes even picnicking in the cemeteries), and reminiscing. Many outside of the Hispanic culture sometimes find it a little morose or macabre but it is the exact opposite. It is the celebration of the lives of those that were loved while they were here.

I was fortunate to have relationships with all of my grandparents and one set of my great grandparents-all who have long since joined a plethora of my aunts, uncles, and siblings on the other side.  While I don’t do sugar skulls or picnics among the tomb stones, I do take the time to remember and be grateful for them.

I also take the time to contemplate the legacy they left.

Legacy

Most of my family came here from Europe just two or three generations ago and raised themselves from poverty to middle class.  Very impressive!

What is most fascinating to me are the women.

The women in my family do not resemble what I see in the history books. Click To Tweet

They were a bunch of tough broads! I mean that in the most loving, honorable, respectful way possible!  They had strength and grit and juggled a life way more difficult than I will most likely ever encounter.

Not What I Was Taught

As far back as the stories go there are all kinds of examples of courage, strength, and moxie.  When I examined these closer, it changed my world view.  The women in my family did not match what the history books had taught me and they did not fit the stereotype of a helpless woman whose sole job it was to mind the children and the house while their man brought back the bacon.

First, there was the amazing courage of my great grandmothers just leaving everything they knew, hopping on a boat and crossing the ocean with little more than the clothes on their back, and nothing guaranteed when they got here.  All this while completely trusting a man to help them.  Remember, women were barely recognized as civil entities at that point and were born into a world where they were not even allowed to vote.

The number of children my great grandmothers had is staggering to think about in this day and age.  Granny Anna (yes, proudly her name sake) had only one child but Marietta had 4, Mary had 5, and Veronica had 8.  The reason this is so amazing to me is that this all occurred during a time when if you wanted chicken for dinner you had to kill and clean it first, when laundry was done by hand and most clothing was still made at home. This is way more exhausting than being a soccer or dance mom!

On top of all that they  worked in jobs not related to the immediate care of their family!  Who said women stayed out of the work force then?  I am guessing they did not view themselves as pioneers and worked like they did out of necessity but it certainly skews the version of history I was given in school.

Anna was daycare provider, Mary was a house cleaner, and Veronica worked alongside her husband to build a family farming business that was eventually transformed into a greenhouse that currently employs hundreds of people including 4 generations of my family members.

My grandmothers had less children (Ella had 2 and Ada had 3) but they also worked.  Ella met my grandfather as hired help on the farm (now greenhouse) and eventually became the bookkeeper as well.  Ada was a seamstress who was self-employed and worked well in to her 70’s.

This generation also gave me some amazing great aunts.  Aunt Theresa doubled down on the kids (7 of them) and maintained a job until she retired from the local school system  Auntie Aldy was the first single mom I ever knew and she rocked it.  She had 4 kids when my uncle died. 3 were between the ages of 9-13.  She worked hard, was reportedly smart with her money and the most adventurous of all the family elders. She knew how to have fun, she was an excellent cook (and an inspiration in my culinary adventures), and so optimistic.  When I was a teenager, she got herself a boyfriend and then married him when she was 64.  This was fantastic to me!  It was a glimpse of what a great serial life could look like.

Those amazing women birthed my mom and her generation.  My aunts worked as partners with their husbands building family businesses.  My mom was the first woman I knew that had a post-secondary education and was a geriatric nurse and eventually a nurse administrator.  She was the only mom in my school at the time that had a job outside of the house and her and my dad worked opposite shifts for many years to avoid the childcare issue.  Also, for a few years, Mom held down the fort while my father worked away from home 5 out of 7 days a week (no cellphones, no skype, long distance charges too exorbitant to pay for).  I know ‘modern’ women who don’t exhibit that much independence.  She was my most immediate role model and I have a firm foundation because of her.

[While I am writing about all these women I do have to acknowledge my father.  He was the first male feminist I knew. He always believed women should have equal rights, and he walked the walk.  My mother always made her own career choices and my father encouraged it and provided support for it. He encouraged his daughters as well.  While this seems like a no brainer now, this was quite the big deal back in the 1960s and 1970s when I was young.  Even today when there are still men who bristle at the word ‘feminist’, he just chuckles because “women having equal rights doesn’t make me less of a man”. Best yard stick I could have had for measuring men that came into my life!]

Empowerment

As I look at the paths these women have forged, the legacy they have left, it looks nothing like what the history books have reported (Perhaps historians got it wrong? Maybe they just never properly recorded women’s contributions?). And my account does not speak of most of their personal tragedies- deaths, illness, disappointments.  They were not helpless.  They weren’t confined to the house.  They were entrepreneurs. They were collaborators. They worked their butts off. They created beautiful things and raised beautiful people.   I am glad that this was the reality of my history. I am proud that these are my people.   It motivates me to do better and be better. 

Gratitude

To those honorable women who are still alive and able to read this:  Thank you for your example! I love you!

To Anna, Marietta, Mary, Veronica, Ella, Ada, Aldy, and all the women before them whose names I do not know: Your everyday lives were impactfull.  You are not forgotten. You are remembered with love and gratitude.

Whose memory do you celebrate on Day of the Dead?

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