Día de Muertos and the Purple Puppy

Chapter 1: Canta y No Llores (Once Upon a Time in Mexico)

Chapter 2: Becoming “Teacher”

And Chapter 3: Knowledge of the Heart (Making Tortillas with the Flower Princess)


In Mexico, the second day of November is El Día de los Muertos  – The Day of the Dead. I had been taken with the trappings of this holiday before I moved to Xalapa, but I had no idea what it really meant to people until I met Julio. Even the story of his birth conspired to make me fall in love. His father had been a poet, musician, and anarchist. After Julio’s two older brothers were born, many years passed before his mother conceived again. In his excitement, Julio’s father rented a car and drove to pick up some musician friends in the next town, with the aim of bringing them back to serenade his pregnant wife from beneath her bedroom window. But it rained heavily that day. On the way home, the car careened off the road. Julio’s father was killed instantly, and a widowed mother gave birth to her third son on New Year’s Eve.

Although he never met his father, Julio always believed that his life was witnessed by the dead man’s spirit. He often spoke to one particular star in the sky, certain his father could hear. And so, on The Day of the Dead, we built an elaborate altar to celebrate the life of his padre. The flowers and the bread of the dead were there, as well as some of his favorite sweets. He hadn’t been a drinker, so he received water instead of liquor. On the tier below him, both our childhood dogs were honored with bones and bowls of food, and the bottom shelf was reserved for La Alma Solitaria. We were both tenderhearted and a bit superstitious, so The Lonely Soul was made welcome in our home.

Soon after, following the circle of life, it was time to celebrate the day of my birth. I was surprised with an excursion to the beach, with plans to swim and kayak through sea caves all day long. Instead, we spent the day under the tin roof of a local seafood shack, hoping to outlast a stubborn and torrential rain. In the meantime, I tumbled on the dirt floor with some very new puppies, unaware that my life was about to change.

Out of all the puppies, there was one with a large lavender spot on her haunch. The color came from a popular antiseptic, and the fur there was rubbed off. “We just don’t have enough food for the mother dog,” the owner said, “So, she doesn’t make enough milk. The pups are hungry and try to steal her food, and she defends it with her teeth. I’m really not sure what to do. Say… Would you want to take one home?”

And yes, of course the answer was yes, and of course the one that owned my heart was the tiny purple puppy. She was the runt of the litter, with a pig’s corkscrewed tail and a fiercely defiant black snout. We bundled her into a shoe box lined with rags, but on the ride home she hauled her tiny body out of the box and crawled up onto my chest. She gazed deeply and trustingly into my eyes, then coated my shirt in vomit. I was in love.

The next day was November 20, the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. In that war, women soldiers who fought beside the men were called Las Adelitas, and so my little girl was named Adelita, too. She had the spirit, and the needle-sharp teeth, and although she’s now called Adi for brevity’s sake, she deserves her name.

Popular entre la tropa era Adelita                    Popular among the troops was Adelita,
la mujer que el sargento idolatraba                  the woman who the sergeant idolized,
que ademas de ser valiente era bonita            and besides being brave, she was pretty,
que hasta el mismo coronel la respetaba.          so that even the colonel respected her.

~ La Adelita, Isaak Osipovich Dunayevsky

Adi first came home to the orange castle in the centro, but she was too young for vaccines and my vet warned against walking her on the dirty city streets with no protection. After a few weeks of letting her piss on newspaper placed around our rooftop patio, I was tired of chasing her every second to make sure she didn’t slip between the railing bars and tumble three stories to her doom. So, we did what good parents do. We put our little one first, and moved to the country. And thus began the happiest era of my life in Mexico.

In Xico, a rural village the maps forgot, I lived in a home made all of windows and light. It was set in the pulsing heart of a garden replete with flowers, banana trees, and coffee bushes. There was a waterfall that trickled between the three levels of the yard, and a stone grill built into a wall where I cooked most of our dinners. Every morning, Adi and I would walk into town for supplies, or up into the hills where locals swore the devil lived. We never ran into him, but we did meet farmers, donkeys, cows, and a full rainbow assortment of birds.

It’s funny how there’s not much to say about the happiest of times. The days are not distinct, but blur into one long joy of cooking, sleeping, and lying in the sun. I continued to teach, and took trips to Guatemala and Belize. Mostly, though, I loved my little family, I loved my rustic home, and I loved the kind people of Xico who didn’t mind this white girl marching through town with the machete I’d bought to cut my grass.

When I wrote my first story about Mexico, Mark asked me a question in the comments: “When you were in the heart of all this, did you think it could last forever or did you know, deep down inside, that it would all eventually come to an end?”

The truth is, that then, I thought it never, ever would.


To read the last part of this story, click here.


38 responses to “Día de Muertos and the Purple Puppy

  1. That’s a fantastic story. I love reading about your adventures there and frankly I enjoy hearing something positive about Mexico for once. I’ve never been there but your stories make me believe it should be on my list.

    • Thanks, Tim! The country has gone through so much since I left, but at the same time, I am sure that most everything I’ve written still holds true. The things I loved most were the kinds of things that even great violence can’t touch. I would absolutely recommend that you go, especially to Xalapa, Oaxaca, and Puebla. These places are all rather far south of the border, and still seem to be relatively serene.

    • That’s a kind thing to say. 🙂 The decision was maybe half based on a good heart, and half based on, “Awwwwwww, FUZZY!” You know how it goes…

      Today, Adi is just over six years old and lives with J and me in North Carolina. She’s an absolute dear, and smart enough that she responds to commands in both English and Spanish (unless she’s feeling persnickety, and then she goes completely deaf).

      • Yes, I am! I used to pick dogs from street and care for them, at one point I had 13 of them 🙂
        We don’t have a pet now, because we live in an appartament, but we hope to change it soon so I can cuddle puppies again! 😀

          • Nope, in an appartament of a very small building in the suburbs. We had a yard, so I had my fathers friend build them dog houses. They had lots of stuff in there, pillows and everything, and I would warm them, feed them and everything. They would follow me to school every day and wait for me to finish with my classes 🙂
            Eventualy, all of them got taken by someone, to live in a home with lots of love and that is what made me the happiest!

  2. All Latino poets are anarchists! (And vice versa.) It’s in their DNA. In the words of David Bowie:

    Where there’s trouble there’s poetry.

    The circumstances under which Julio’s father died are incredibly sad. If you had read that in a novel, you’d have dismissed it as an overly-melodramatic contrivance by the author. How did his mother rise about it, I wonder?

    I almost wish the poem didn’t include a line about her physical beauty. Say what you want about how things should be but it always comes around to that, doesn’t it?

    Do you study any form of meditation? The most important lesson I learned–the one that took forever to sink into my thick skull–is that it ALWAYS ends. Only impermanence is permanent.

    This series has read like a good Graham Greene novel. Not in style or tone, but in substance. Thanks for the link! I’ll send you $1. Huzzah.

    • The poet/anarchist thing is almost certainly true, but I bet some of them are terrible. Did Bowie mention anything about the quality of these trouble-inspired works?

      As for Julio’s mom, she was a force of nature. She started working again as a teacher of home arts… sort of like Home Ec, but at a school for continuing education. Basically, she taught adult women how to embroider or cook so they could start their own small businesses and bring in a little extra income. And she supported her three sons that way, and now all three of them have PhDs. One is literally an astrophysicist. So, needless to say… she’s beyond amazing.

      I felt the same way about the song – like what, the colonel respects her just because she’s beautiful? Being brave wasn’t enough for him?! If you do an image search for Las Adelitas, you’ll find some amazing photos of the real women, and then some hyper-sexed-up illustrations. The archetype covers a range, to say the least. But I still like that my Adi has a song, and she is a fuzzy, one-eyed beauty in her own right. 😉

      As for meditation, I’m pretty awful at it. Monkey mind all over the place. I do pretty well at deep thinking when I’m in the car, though… but do you really think that everything has to end? What about great love affairs? If the couple stays together their whole lives, does it end because one of them dies, or both? Or does the relationship end many times, moving from one life stage to another and being reborn every few years? (You and I are going to filllll some internet space with philosophizing, my friend! And I’m excited!)

      Finally, I’ve never read any Graham Greene – which novel should I start with? Because now I have to know… and I’ll put that $1 towards it. 🙂

      • Not to turn them into science experiments or anything, but to have three fatherless children end up with PhDs deserves further study. Personally, I think a lot of it is genetic. Having both parents is, unquestionably, vital but I believe there are people who are genetically disposed to intelligence/success, just as I believe alcoholism is a genetic trait.

        I don’t want to come here and be a big downer but I do believe that everything ends. Great love affairs of the ilk you’re speaking of, with poetic majesty and longevity, are not common. I like your theory of phases. Not all of them are pleasant, either.

        Graham Greene is a genre writer who might not be to your liking. You might be bored. I’m a big Anglophile and Graham Greene is one of the quintessential post-war British novelists of the 20th Century. Many of his books deal with traveling to exotic locations. He accurately predicted America’s involvement in Vietnam years before we actually got there in his novel The Quiet American Ummm…try The Heart of the Matter. You might like that one.

        That’s what I think. (Well…you asked!)

        • They are all geniuses, and I don’t use that word lightly. They are humble but hilarious, whimsical but wise. I loved all three of those brothers, and if they did genetically inherit their father’s intelligence matched with their mother’s resourcefulness, it explains much.

          Thank you for the recommendation! I promise to report back once I’ve scouted a copy from the used book store. (And likely gotten seduced into buying at least three other titles while I’m there.)

          Finally… as to everything ending… I don’t find that to be depressing. Like with celebrating the Day of the Dead, I think there is freedom in acknowledging the limits of experience, and then striving to make the most of life within them.

  3. I remember someone once telling me that Day of the Dead was very morbid, that an entire culture of people celebrating dead people seemed creepy. I don’t find it any more or less creepy than being religious. I think there’s something comforting about thinking that an entity you want to be at your side always is.

    Great story, Jennie!

    • I agree! I like the idea that, once a year, you might receive a visit from someone you loved. And the day is anything but morbid! There are even more explosions of color than usual, and music and dancing, and special art and food. All in all, embracing death as part of life seems healthy to me, instead of yearning to live forever at any cost. I think it’s part of what keeps Mexican culture more focused on the current moment, because what is there besides today? Thanks for reading!



  4. Your answer to Mark’s comment made me sad.

    If you thought it would never end, then why did it have to? Why does anything?
    Why does Mark have to go around saying things like, “the only thing permanent is impermanence?”

    I’m maudlin. But this is a beautiful piece.

    • When this story played out, I only knew the brightest of emotions. I blazed a path through my life with bliss, rage, despair, eternal hope… all the extremes. Everything shone so brightly it dazzled me.

      These days, I feel I’m closer to knowing real contentment because I admitted – was forced to admit – that pain is real, and mundanity has a purpose, and routine can be beautiful. A few things had to end for me to learn that, but now that the curtain has been lowered a bit, and the light of the world isn’t always blinding me with its brilliance, my dreams have a new clarity. I feel like there’s a new kind of beauty in the shadows.

      …also, if you are maudlin, I am grandiose.

  5. What a beautiful series you have written. Part of the loveliness is how you have conveyed so much in a few short posts. As a reader I am introduced to such a lush, lyrical world, and I know there is much more you haven’t included. Naturally I would love to hear more about your experiences, to get a chance to spend some time in that magical world.

    • Thank you, Magpie! I love this comment, because it is so true and I love that you intuited so much. I could go on and on about the vibrant marketplaces, the quirks of my other neighbors, Julio’s family, the police and their bribes, the flavors of Mexican pastries… maybe there will be more one-off posts, after I end this series on Wednesday.

  6. “[The pup] crawled up onto my chest. She gazed deeply and trustingly into my eyes, then coated my shirt in vomit. I was in love.” This *SO* describes my relationship with our two dogs.

    And that house – that house! Oh, so stunningly beautiful. So much to love.

    • That’s such a sweet thing to say, Lynette. Reliving them finally feels purely good, without the tinge of regret I used to get. It was wonderful, and I’m so glad I have these memories.

    • She is so obviously my favorite of our three dogs that J makes fun of me about it. I say, you can’t care for a creature from the time it’s five weeks old and not form a special attachment. Plus… like you said… she’s an adorable fuzzball!

  7. Jennie, I finally got to part 3… parts one and two have been dancing in my head for days! Always a sign of a book I can’t put down. Just sayin’… but this one, oh, so lovely! This is such a great story. I’m so glad little Adi stayed with you… do you speak to her in Spanish or English? Or is she now bilingual? 😉 Gorgeous writing!

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