Butterflies and Sulfur: Day of the Dead
As winter comes to a close you await the arrival of October, assailed by a whole crowd of emotions. With October comes the end of the school year, the year of hurrying and hurrying. Something very beautiful happens in our district. The weather changes and it hardly rains at all. The sky is dressed in magical, even glorious colors as winter slips away. On the 26th of October precisely a soft and supple breeze begins to blow, a breeze that will gradually gain power, giving rise to the famous winds of October.
My friends and I all felt this drastic change come about. We felt everything intensely—we felt that the sun shined brighter even as the weather cooled. Something happens to people at that time of year, and we felt the happiness around us—it seemed to change even the atmosphere. You feel a sort of divine change, wanting to jump, to run. Everything, everything was different, as we all prepared for the longed-for festivals leading up to Christmas and the new year!
Everyone looks forward to the October winds. Sometimes they don’t arrive till November, but then we say, “The October winds are late!” When I was a child the cold would last for weeks, but now it only lasts for a day or two. We kids were such dopes! We weren’t accustomed to the cold, and it made us feel so good! I think my brother Zaquéo felt the same way as I did because when we woke up, both of us would throw off the rags they gave us to wrap ourselves in, and rush outside. Instead of huddling in our crowded pita-leaf beds, we’d dash out to some old wooden chairs and wrap ourselves up in a scrap of blanket. We liked to feel the cold and watch the rising sun. Mamá was always up early making the tortillas for the day. When she called us to come and eat our tortilla, we’d say, “No! We don’t want a tortilla—we want to see how the sun shines different in the cold!”
We’d spend about a week like this, enjoying the unaccustomed chill. The sun looked different, the sky looked different. The weather was very lovely, like it is here in California—but back there the wind whipped up a lot of dust. What joy we had feeling the cold come at last!
So you have the right to one pair of shoes per year, and if you ruin them you go without. You have only one dress, that you wash once a month or when you can no longer tell what color it is. But in October you are as free as the wind high up in the clouds! The rains tumble down, and you stick your bare feet in the water that collects in the street. You run and run, and at last you bathe in all the water you want, dashing from house to house beneath the torrents cascading from the rusty sheet-metal roofs. It’s a beautiful experience to jump over the puddles, although sometimes you slice your feet on the broken glass that we toss out into the street. You experience a wonderful freedom when you climb a tree to pick mangos, guavas, or flowers that you can take home—not as a centerpiece, but because your menu is going to change! Instead of beans you will eat flowers with exotic flavors that sometimes may not taste so good, but at least your stomach will get something different from your everyday diet. Those were glorious days!
October was the time of kite flying. Everyone would buy crepe paper to make those famous, colorful kites that have so many names in Central America: papalotes or cometas or barriletes. We called them piscuchos. Diego would buy crepe paper to make kites for sale, and he taught this art to some of my older siblings. We little kids scrounged sheets of newspaper to make kites for ourselves. We’d strip the silver or gold foil off cigar boxes to use in the tail—how it sparkled in the sunlight! If there was no newspaper, we’d make paper airplanes from whatever scraps we could find. The sky was thus adorned with colors, and the contest to see whose kite could fly the highest was something everyone looked forward to. And in those moments we discovered millions of white butterflies in their unceasing flight. It was something fantastic, and it lasted for nearly a month.
Ever since I can remember, the white butterflies would arrive on one of those breezy days between the thirty-first of October and the fifteenth of November; I think that they migrated. At noontime or in the afternoon I’d go running through the fields with the butterflies, all by myself. They liked taking this path because there were many trees out there and nobody would bother them. There were great clouds of butterflies, and I ran in among them and it was magical! They were in my head and in the few shreds of rags that I wore. My imagination flew away with them; I had a certain childlike idea that I was one of them and could leave that place, to come back again in maybe a year. How beautiful it was to let my mind go and forget the earthly mire! I felt like one of them—flying, looking down on the human beings and their squalid lives. I felt like the queen of the butterflies!
How beautiful it was to believe that I was the first and the last, and that one day soon, not so long from now, I would have wings to free myself from the ground, and to realize that everything was better in the place where my butterflies would go. I talked to them, but they never changed their flight to listen to me. I gave them messages that they could carry up in case they looked upon God. Today I know for sure that they carried my voice to the Creator. For about six years I sent Him messages, watching the butterflies come and go, flying along in their midst from the top of my head down to my little-girl waist, wings open to the sun and the wind, together forever!
November 2, Día de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—marks the end of winter. We lived near the cemetery, and all day long there’s an enormous fiesta in my barrio. It starts on November first. The whole neighborhood fills up with flowers: wax flowers, natural flowers, paper flowers of all different prices. On this day we remember our loved ones who have passed away, and we decorate their tombs.
On vacation, since Mamá was hardly ever at home (and when she was, she was busy), Rubén and Lúcio and I would make the most of it and go out to play in the vacant lots and abandoned shacks nearby. Amid the grass and weeds and desiccated cornstalks there abounded a yellow flower, a wildflower, growing in very tall bushes. The blossoms looked like sunflowers, but smaller. We all thanked God for this flower, because even the poorest families could make big bouquets or wreaths of them, bound up with cypress branches, to put on the graves. When you cut the flower, you find that the stem is hollow. If by chance your hands touch your mouth, you taste its intense and bitter flavor. It’s hard to get rid of the scent even if you scrub your hands. I never knew the name of this flower. It was not the cempasúchil, the marigold famous for Day of the Dead in Mexico; nor was it the sunflower. It was just the flower of October.
I really don’t understand the ritual of the Mexicans: they celebrate death. The Mexicans are the ones who make sugar candy skulls and those clay or paper maché Catrinas— skeleton ladies with fancy hats who represent Death, and their dandy companions (I forget their name), who represent Hell. In our country you will not see these things.
In our country we don’t celebrate death; we simply remember our loved ones who have passed away. We believe that on this day God permits the dead to come back and visit us and share a meal—but not in the cemetery like the Mexicans (because the traditional Mexicans eat dinner in the cemetery). We don’t eat there and we don’t have a special meal in the house. Our custom is simply to decorate family tombs on Día de los Muertos. You remember the dead, and you cry. You get the grave tidied up, and then you go home. That is sufficient.
When Mamá first came to the capital there was no one here whose grave she needed to tend. We began to go to the cemetery when I was about eight years old, to decorate the tomb of a baby of Bernardo’s who lived only three hours. I remember it was like a fiesta, with mariachi bands wandering from tomb to tomb, looking for customers. You see everyone there—sometimes people you haven’t seen in twenty years! A lot of people who have moved away from the neighborhoods come back year after year to decorate the graves of their loved ones, and you say, “Hey, there, So-and-So! How nice to see you!”
In our country, cleaning up the tombs is actually a little business. There are people who earn a bit of money doing this on the first and second of November. They paint the cross white or some other pastel color, then go out and bring a lot of dirt and mound it up on the grave. If you go to the cemetery in the morning you bring flowers for the grave, along with some water for them. Flowers can be very expensive on those days. When our family started going, we would buy a small cypress wreath for fifty centavos.
On Day of the Dead a storm would come, and it would last all day until about ten o’clock at night. It always rained on the second of November, regular as clockwork—and we all believed that it rained so that nobody would steal the flowers! You see, the people who come to the cemetery in the afternoon bring much less stuff to decorate the tombs. A lot of my neighbors would go at six o’clock in the evening, since it gets dark very early. They bring hoes and shovels to fix up the tombs, because at that hour nobody is still working there. My neighbors don’t bring flowers. They see the flowers that you brought in the morning and say, “Ah! These are nice flowers!” Then they take them to put on the tombs of their own loved ones!
Later in the evening the gangsters and the homeless and the drunks come, too—to steal the enormous floral wreaths that were bought by people with a lot of money. They take them and go out to sell them. Also, since some of the wreaths that you buy come all wrapped up in clear plastic, the same people who sold them to you come back to steal them away! But it’s not a problem. Nobody returns to the cemetery or remembers their dead except on November second—after that it doesn’t matter. Why are people like this? I don’t know!
So you go into the cemetery to put flowers around, and when you come out you eat hojuelas. In my country we don’t have pan de muerto like in Mexico. We have hojuelas—crunchy, deep-fried flour tortillas covered with honey. Since we don’t have rolling pins, we use bottles to roll them out. The resulting tortillas are lopsided, but you toss them into hot oil—a ton of them—and take them out all golden and crunchy. You eat them with honey on top. There are huge baskets of hojuelas outside the cemetery. When I was a child they were fifty centavos apiece—very cheap. Later, when I was older and I’d go, they’d give you three for a dollar—pretty expensive. But this is the tradition for Day of the Dead in my country.
Mamá would always make the trip back to San Vicente to decorate the tomb of her mother, Sara. She and her family really liked wreaths of cypress, and in her youth she had always made her own wreaths. On the Day of the Dead you smell the scent of cypress everywhere.
Out there in the countryside it’s the day of ayote en dulce—pumpkin in honey. (Actually, they use brown sugar candy rather than sugar or honey.) They make hojuelas for dessert in the city because they can’t get mature pumpkin to make the more traditional ayote en dulce. The oldest ladies also make a special kind of tamale, it’s like a huge traveler’s tamale made with a bit of pumpkin. This is what people eat on Day of the Dead.
The ladies always make a couple of extra tamales and put them up on the roof of their house so that the loved one’s spirit will come and eat. The soul can come and eat something, and then continue down its road back to wherever it resides. That is their belief. By dawn of the following day, naturally, there’s nothing left of the tamale. Of course, it’s not the spirits at all, but the drunks and crazy people wandering the roads who come and eat it! Regardless, the ladies always do this. And if by chance dawn comes and no one has touched the tamale, they throw it out—no one else will eat it.
I don’t like going to the cemetery because tons of people come, including drunks like my papá, bringing bottles of liquor to splash onto the grave to share it with the dead person. They think that the dead person will come out and drink the alcohol: this is their belief. Still, I feel sad that I can’t be there any longer to tend my mother’s grave.
The October winds also announce the coming of Christmas. We children rejoiced, but not because we had any notion of receiving gifts: Santa Claus and the Magi never got our address. No; we were thrilled because we experienced that reality which is called employment. We relaxed for at least two weeks after school ended, and then in November, as far back as I can remember, we made cohetes in our house. In English you call them fireworks: firecrackers, Roman candles, bottle rockets, mortars, or whatever. In the Latin countries we love to explode them on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. People don’t care so much about the light of the fireworks, but rather the blast that makes you feel the earth move.
In October, with great anticipation, my siblings Carlota and Santiago got involved with other people making fireworks. It’s a cottage industry, and everyone is paid piece rate. All of this is done by hand. There are no scales, no standards for how to prepare or measure the gunpowder. You prepare it in the way that you believe will make the loudest sound. My siblings were experts and we little kids were their apprentices. Unfortunately, for several weeks we all went around with our clothes stinking of sulfur.
Carlota was charged with making all different kinds of fireworks. We made cohetes—rockets, or Roman candles, that would shoot into the sky. We also made volcancitos, which you place on the ground to watch the sparks shoot out. There were also estrellas de bengala—Bengal stars—that are like the sparklers they have here in California, as well as fulminantes, which are tiny bundles of sand and gunpowder that you throw onto the ground to make a bang. We also made the escupidores or “spittoons,” which you hold out in your hand while they spit out showers of sparks and bursts of smoke, and silvadores, “whistlers,” using bamboo tubes. They fly into the air whistling, and make a red light. We made tons and tons of firecrackers, and also some powerful mortars for our own family to explode. It’s a lot of work, and the only benefit is that it provides employment to people.
By the age of twelve or thirteen Carlota put together this business in the neighborhood where we were living. She was the one who managed everything in the fabrication of fireworks—it was like a micro-enterprise. She employed about ten younger children, including us little siblings. I was maybe four or five years old. It was a lot of work and we never gave a thought to the danger. Maybe we didn’t make a lot of money, but it was always exciting!
Sometimes I went along with Carlota to pick up the raw materials from a lady named Tere, who ran a cohetería out of her patio. Half of her face was burned and her two hands were all contorted. She could hardly move, because her skin was burned from so many accidents with gunpowder. When we went to her house we would see all the people with their skin shriveled up, puckered; a different kind of skin. They would tell us about the accidents they’d had. When you’re a child you just look at people and you get used to seeing the scars. You never think about what that person suffered to get so badly disfigured.
Well, it was great fun making things with gunpowder—not store-bought, but homemade. Gunpowder is a mixture of three substances: sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal. When I was a girl the gunpowder was kind of black in color. It looked like sand, but black. Today it looks yellowish, because they’ve changed the formula and it’s even more explosive.
Tere would buy quintales of sulfur and saltpeter—hundred-pound bags of these ingredients. She bought the chemicals daily so as not to keep a lot of it around—that would be even more dangerous! She and her workers made the gunpowder out on her big patio, away from the houses. They mixed the three substances with their bare hands out in the open air, with no gloves or masks. They did it right on the tabletop, with no bowl or anything. Their arms and faces were always covered with a white powder that gave them a rash.
In the fireworks industry there are people who specialize in making the paper tubes that will hold the gunpowder. Some of my neighbors just made the tubes—they didn’t make firecrackers anymore because it is so dangerous. They had to bring hundreds of pounds of old newspaper to their house. They bought powdered glue in bags, and had to boil it up until it was ready to go.
You start by making a very long tube—the length of a sheet of newspaper. You use an iron rod to help you curl the paper. You take the sheet of newspaper and lay it out and then roll it up by hand. You put a lot of glue along the edge to hold it in place.
When they finish making perhaps three or four hundred of these long, skinny tubes, they take them to someone like Tere. There, they count the tubes—because they measure out so many tareas or “jobs”—I don’t know exactly how they calculate it. But they get to the cohetería and there they have a guillotine where they cut the tubes into the right length. The little firecrackers are about an inch and a half long, and the big ones three inches. People often amputate fingers when they use this guillotine—the man at Tere’s place had only three fingers left. Plus, you have to be very careful because the metal of the guillotine could cause a spark that would make the whole house explode!
Next, they bind up quantities of firecrackers with a long belt made out of thick paper. The man grabs a precise number of firecrackers in his hand and straps them all together with pressure so that the belt holds them. The man knows exactly how big a handful to grab; I don’t know how he does it, but he doesn’t even have to count them. He makes big “wheels” of a hundred firecrackers, or even two hundred and fifty firecrackers, all standing upright and bound together with the belt. (There are always a few extras, and we’d keep them to use in our house!) The workers tap down the tubes in the wheel and seal the bottoms with sawdust and glue.
Once the little tubes have been bound up into big wheels comes the most dangerous job—the job of the filler. The filler has a big table full of gunpowder that has already been mixed with potassium nitrate. When they are ready they take the wheel with the 150 little tubes in it and begin to heap the gunpowder on top. Then they begin to jiggle or “dance” the wheel around so that all the tubes fill halfway up with gunpowder. They toss it around in the air, kind of like making a pizza. The workers check carefully to make sure that all the little tubes are filled—but only halfway up. (Yet they almost always put in a little extra gunpowder.)
This is the most dangerous part of the process because in all the coheterías, if the person filling up the wheel should drop it, or even bump it a little on the table, there’s an explosion! And for that reason it’s mainly the fillers who get burned—almost all the people have their face or both of their arms burned.
Tere also supervised the people who made the fuses. You would take lengths of thick, fibrous cord and bathe them in black liquid gunpowder until they’re completely saturated. Then you’d wrap the cord round and round a wood panel some three or four feet high and set it out on the patio to dry and stiffen in the sun. You had to be very careful turning the fuses, because they would explode at the least opportunity! Tere would cut the fuses into yard-long pieces and give Carlota bunches of 200 to bring home. The little guillotine that Tere used to cut the paper tubes for firecrackers was too risky for the fuses. At home, Carlota would very, very carefully use a knife to cut the whole bunch into the appropriate length for the fireworks we were making. She had to be sure not to make even a little spark!
In truth there were always people who got burned, but when I was little I never imagined the drama or the pain when gunpowder explodes right next to you. I learned about that later, during my adulthood, when two houses nearby exploded from people making gunpowder, and a family we knew was killed. The mother tossed a pack of matches to her daughter, and somehow a match-head glanced against a fuse, igniting all that gunpowder. The whole house exploded with a deafening sound. Mamá cried out, “It’s the end of the world!” A huge black cloud arose, and the people who survived came staggering out, terribly burned. It was very sad. Of course, out where we lived there was no hope of fire trucks coming to put out the fire. Even within the city the roads were too shoddy to permit the trucks to pass. But when you’re a child, you don’t measure danger, nor are you a pessimist.
And so, every Saturday Carlota walked some twenty blocks out and twenty blocks back to collect the raw materials from Tere. She would get ten or more wheels of firecrackers full of gunpowder, that needed fuses. She’d lay out big canvas tarps and stack the wheels very carefully on top. She’d make one huge bundle to carry on her own head, and then several smaller bundles. Ever since I can remember, we little kids helped—whoever was strong enough, naturally. If they had loaded Carlota’ bundle onto my own head, I’m sure it would have snapped me like the dry branch of a tree! Even by adolescence I weighed barely seventy pounds: I must have been nothing but bones! My health was very fragile, but I loved life and I helped with whatever I could.
We little zipotes who carried the wheels full of gunpowder had to be careful not to jostle them or the gunpowder would fall out of the little rockets. Or it all might explode! As we walked home with our bundles, along came the other kids. Marcos! Antonio! So-and-so! They all came because they knew Carlota would pay them. And they’d shout, “Lota, when do you want us to start?”
“We’ll start tomorrow.”
“We’ll start today, Lota, if you want!”
It was a lot of fun for us children. We were happy knowing that by the end of the week we were each going to earn ten or twenty centavos—a sum that nobody ever would have given us. We’d bring the finished fireworks back to Tere the following Saturday to pick up more materials—and Carlota would get our pay. God is surely great, because he protected us!
Once back home, we little kids, from five to ten years old, would get to work at makeshift tables inserting a fuse into each tube. Even Rubén made rockets with us. He’d come over and it didn’t matter where he sat because he’d crouch on his knees and start stuffing the fuses into the firecrackers. “I’ll help you, Carlota,” he’d say to my sister. “I could finish them up, too, because I’m very strong!” He worked super fast with the fuses, and I’d think, Wow, that Rubén!
Every year children lose fingers or die from handling the fuses. We worked industriously with our black gunpowder just a couple of steps away from Mamá, who was frying tortillas. Sometimes the flames came out quite high from beneath the fired clay griddle, the comal, where she heated them.
Now that I’m old I’m still amazed that we never suffered a serious accident at our house. We truly must have a great Protector in the heavens, because if something had exploded we’d all have been killed! And Rubén couldn’t have escaped fast enough—even though he thought so. Thus we worked in the middle of danger—and not just us, but almost all the children of the neighborhood. However, they all enjoyed it just as much as we did!
I was never able to finish up the wheels of firecrackers. Finishing them involved wedging a little bit of paper into the top of each firecracker to keep the gunpowder and the fuse from falling out. This was a job for teenagers perhaps twelve to fifteen years old. In our family Carlota finished them off. She used a little stick of wood that had a special point, and with two careful shoves she’d poke in the little bits of paper, sealing the fuse and powder inside the tube. She did it freehand, using just enough force to do the job without causing an explosion. Nowadays there are more accidents because they use a little board to give four whacks for each cohete.
For each wheel we’d have to test two firecrackers, to make sure that Carlota had finished them off well. If she didn’t use enough force, the cohete made the sound, pum! But if she did it well, the cohete made the sound, PLOK! And if it was good, and she was using the right amount of force and all, then we little kids would come back for the next task.
We’d break open a wheel of firecrackers and begin to tie the individual firecrackers together with string. You grab the firecrackers, fold the fuses in a special way, and bind them all together with string until you’ve got a whole row of firecrackers tightly bound together. You put in a longer fuse for the whole packet. My siblings were such specialists that for Christmas they made not only the little packets of ten or twenty, which are called cajetillas, but they also made ametralladoras chiquitas (“little machine guns”) of some fifty or more firecrackers—as well as the big ametralladoras of up two thousand firecrackers. And these were big firecrackers—about three inches long! Then either Mamá or Carlota would come and wrap up the strings of firecrackers in pretty paper. White was for the cajetillas, green for the ametralladoras chiquitas, and red for the big ametralladoras. They ended up looking very pretty. I think that nowadays each of the big ametralladoras could be sold for about two hundred dollars! They are very expensive, and my siblings were experts at making them. This is what they liked to do. Unfortunately, our poor neighbors had to suffer from the noise and danger!
Carlota also made mortars. The smallest mortars are the size of three soda cans stacked on top of each other and make a powerful blast. She’d always make a few extras for our family. Gangsters today make explosives they call mortiferos or papas (potatoes) that are the size of a single soda can. They take shards of glass, pieces of nails and wire, and wrap them up with gunpowder in aluminum foil. If someone they don’t like comes along, they throw the papa and it explodes, showering the person with shrapnel and gouging a hold in the street.
We kids didn’t have anyone to tell us what we ought to be doing. By Christmas Eve other kids would be out walking, showing off their new pants, their new shirt, but we were always working, up to the last minute. Carlota would have up to twenty kids working on improvised tables out on our patio. That’s when most of the accidents happen—on the twenty-third or twenty-fourth of December. People are exhausted from working long hours—they even go without sleep.
By two or three in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, Carlota would have brought in her last load of fireworks. She would by buy pan con café—bread and coffee—for all the little kids of the neighborhood, and give us our pay. With the little that she gave us for making fireworks we could go and buy something—a notebook or a pencil, or snacks. The school year begins at the end of January, and so we would have something that we would have kept ready for those times. It was so beautiful and different, also.
A regular pencil cost 15 centavos, but a good pencil (a Mongol) would be 25 centavos. A pen might be 5 or 10 centavos, but a good Bic would be 25 centavos. You could buy the smallest size notebook of only 25 pages for 25 centavos. Usually we made our own notebooks, buying a hundred sheets of thin, beige newsprint for 25 centavos. We’d cut it into pages, then get a large needle to make holes along one side, and we’d sew it together to make our homemade notebooks. We’d spend whole afternoons drawing lines on the paper. Or we might use our money for snacks in January and February. For 10 centavos you could get a little bag of green mangos or jicama, or you could buy four jocotes (which is a delicious fruit). For 15 centavos you could get a little sandwich of bread with mortadella. The big kids might make five or ten pesos, with which they could buy shoes, or a shirt.
On the twenty-fifth of December Carlota would go back to Tere with the bigger kids to get more work for us to do. We’d start working again to make enough fireworks for New Year’s Eve. The work is not well paid, but you feel like the king of the world when you hear a rocket explode! Okay, maybe you had to make it yourself to understand this new form of being, this happiness you feel thinking that you really did it up right. And above all, on Christmas Eve you’ve got free fireworks! I made so many rockets that when I turned ten, I nearly shot off a finger of my right hand. I didn’t have time to toss a powerful number-two rocket to the ground before it exploded in my hand. It was very painful, and Mamá said it was my own fault. That was the end of my great gunpowder adventure, but I continued to be a girl for a bit longer.
You may think it strange, but I’ve always had a theory that all these fireworks damage the earth. When you are in our country at midnight on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, your house jumps from all the explosions! For example, a neighbor once set off a mortero near the sewage pipe from our house. He lit the fuse and the explosion was so powerful it broke the water pipe as well as the concrete step beside it!
How could the Earth not feel all these explosions? This is why the earthquakes always arrive in January or February. The Earth waits a little, but then, Pum! Homes are destroyed, people are hurt—it’s horrible to be there. Tourists might like to come to El Salvador to enjoy the fireworks, but I think it’s very sad. Even though we kids enjoyed making them, it’s something that I wouldn’t want to experience again.