A few weeks before Christmas 2017, my grandfather, mi abuelito, born in a migrant farm worker camp in rural Kansas, was called home by the ancestors. That same week my father ended up in the hospital and within a few short months was on the liver transplant list. Cirrhosis of the liver runs in the family, a medical inheritance. My mother went back to therapy. My sister, Alise, got a new boyfriend, and I joined a kickboxing gym. Grief, like Our Lady of Guadalupe, takes many forms.
Four months later on April 10th the first pretty day of spring in Seattle, I turned 26. All I wanted to do was get my tarot cards read and go to kickboxing. No dinner. No drinks. No big noise. I’d had a great reading from this one shop back at Christmastime, on the Winter solstice, seeking direction and solace. She’d been a wonderful reader, old and calm. We communicated well together, her tarot cards old friends. Afterwards in elation and intuition, I called my mother with the news. Something good and big was going to happen in early July and it had something to do with dad. We both secretly prayed that it would be a new liver, trying to ignore the fact that we were praying for some unnamed soul’s early death.
I skipped class and walked into the New Age store nestled on 45th just off the Ave. near the University of Washington. She wasn’t there. A different reader was in her place. A pale man dressed in all black with black eyeliner and matted black hair and picked-at black nail polish. My whole body stiffened. I didn’t want him to read my cards. But the cards don’t lie. It shouldn’t matter who reads them.
He lined up twelve small decks, each deck aligning with an astrological house. Four cards in the tarot deck are able to indicate physical death: the Death card, the Tower card, the Ten of Swords, and the Five of Swords.
My back was straight, unyielding, as we flipped card after card. We came to the eighth astrological house, the house of death and taxes. I was so distracted by the good fortune of a King of Coins in my marriage house that I never expected the next card to be the Tower card, the Tower in Eighth. A Death card in a death house. A double death. Before my reader could rush to reassure me, my grandmother’s spirit washed over me, as she always does when a birth or a death is about to come to our family, and I began to cry there in the store in front of a man whose name I didn’t know and whose face I would never see again. The cards don’t lie.
My mother used to soak in tea baths when she was pregnant with my sister and I, the hot water providing some solace to her flowering body. She also soaked for Martin, but the tea was not strong enough to protect him. My brother was taken from my mother before he had a chance to scream a challenge to the world. At twenty weeks he was no longer a miscarriage, but a stillbirth. My mother labored for twelve hours to bring his small body into this world, my father holding her hand. Our priest, after he baptized Martin—named for my father’s cousin who also died before his time, ensuring he had a name for eternity no matter where he wandered among the stars—put a bouquet of flowers on the door to my mother’s delivery room, a signal—a clock, a calendar, a little weather glass—to nurses and visitors of the loss.
Cempazuchitl are native to Mexico and have been sacred flowers throughout the ages to the Indigenous peoples living there, especially to the Aztec. A symbol of death, change, transition, and the land of the dead, the bright orange and yellow star-like petals of the cempazuchitl decorate modern altars, costumed Catrinas, and folk dancers for Dia de los Muertos. The sacred flower seeds of the Cempazuchitl were secreted away by Catholic Spanish invaders to be planted in the palace gardens and monasteries of Europe, where they were re-named for the Virgin Mary.
The Virgin Mary is the most commonly depicted saint. She is painted, printed, reprinted, and redrawn on everything from calendars to candles. A Mexican household is not truly complete without her image popping up behind some corner. The Virgin Mary liked to play hide-and-seek in my grandfather’s house. You’d find her in the kitchen by the coffee pot, or behind the organ in the living room, and she’d even jump out sometimes in the bathroom. When they cleaned out Grandpa’s house, she was hiding in a box among my great-grandpa’s old boxing license and fight promotion posters—another inheritance. My grandfather loved the Virgin Mary so much that he prayed the Rosary every day.
A priest once told me that the wonderful thing about the liturgical prayers was knowing that someone, somewhere, was saying those same words too, and in that moment you were connected, across time and space, in grace to a complete stranger. It was comforting to know that cada dia mi abuelito was pushing maroon beads through his tanned and wrinkled, arthritic thumb and forefinger, and thinking of his niñita, miles away, surely in need of the Virgin’s blessings. When my grandfather moved to the land of the dead, the Virgin must have gone with him. There were no images of her when the house was listed and the estate closed.
From December 9th through December 12th in 1531, the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, although she was not yet called that, appeared to Juan Diego four times. Four times did she appear on or around the hill of Tepeyac. She spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl even though he knew both Nahuatl and Spanish, having been converted as a child. On the fourth day, December 12th, she spread out her blue black shawl and it was filled with yellow-orange flowers.
Cempazuchitl Tea Uses:
- Drink for indigestion
- Use as a facial toner for hyperpigmentation, scarring, and other discolorations.
- Herbal soak for PMS or pregnancy-related discomfort
- Healing salve for sunburns, diaper rashes, thick thigh chafing
Collect fresh flower heads. You may also use dried flower heads for a more potent blend. Don’t rinse the flowers, don’t baptize, don’t wash away the resin. Its power is in it stickiness. The specks of earth hold their own medicine.
Bring a cup of water to a boil. You will hear when it’s ready. First it will roll like thunder, rain on the roof, then it will breathe a sigh and quietly beat like Cipactli’s water dance. Humming. Rumbling. Humbling. Remove the water from heat. Add flowers. Dried flowers 2 tsp. Fresh 1 tbsp. Double triple as necessary. Cover pot with the lid and steep for 10 minutes. Use internally to relieve indigestion, or continue to cool and use externally for topical ailments.
If using as an herbal soak, steep for thirty minutes and then add to a warm bath for potent relief. If using as a healing salve add, 3-4 teaspoons of melted beeswax per half cup of tea. Stir well until mixture begins to cool. If too runny reheat and adjust beeswax to desired firmness.
Every year on my birthday my mother tells me the story of my birth. A story that always begins with Martin. The residue of Martin stuck to my mother’s blood, raising her hormone levels and allowing her to conceive again. Against Western medical advice my mother got pregnant in under four months after giving birth to Martin, but my mother knew her body, and her body knew what she needed. Martin’s parting gift to our mother was his little sister, a laughing dark-haired niñita for a grieving family. There are no photographs of my big brother to place on the ofrenda. My mother is always comforted by the thought that I have a little Martin in me, because as long as I am remembered he can’t be forgotten. According to the tonalpohualli, I was born on Xochitl, the day of the marigold. I was conceived in death; of course I should be born on the day that honors both death and life. Santa Muerte and I have been chained together since the beginning. The vine of my life tangling in her exposed ribs.
Calendula grows easily in warm damp soil. They are a protective flower. Their oil and fragrance is a deterrent to many insects and invasive fungi. They can often be found around the edges of common flower beds, circling delicate tomato plants, and even on the borders of corn fields. In the sunny, wind-whipped fields of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, the Hernandez family home, the small orange flowers ring sugar beet fields, painting Cipactli’s back in sunset hues.
Marigold or its Latin name Calendula is a genus of about 15-20 species of annual and perennial herbaceous plants in the daisy family Asteracae. Asteracae from the Latin word aster or star. Per aspera ad astra. Through adversity to the stars. The name Calendula is a diminutive of calendae, meaning little calendar, little clock, or possibly little weather glass.
The Aztecs had two calendars. Their eyes turned to the stars. Ad astra. One calendar, the xiuhpohualli, a 365-day calendar, and the other, a sacred calendar, called the tonalpohualli. The tonalpohualli calendar consists of a 260-day cycle with each day a combination of a number from 1–13 and one of the 20 day signs named for different deities. Each day sign corresponds to one of the four cardinal directions. You can always find your way if you know what day it is.
The days of the tonalpohualli were grouped into 20 periods of 13 days each. Thirteen is a lucky number in Mexico and lacks the negative Christian connotation. Endings are blessed things. The calendar, like the world, begins on Cipactli’s back and it ends when the last petals of the Xochitl fall. Historians refer to these weeks as trecenas, derived from the Spanish term trece for thirteen. The original Nahuatl name has been lost.
The agricultural calendar xiuhpohualli, consisted of 360 named days and 5 unlucky nameless days. On these nemontemi, unlucky nameless days, work ceased. No hearth fires were lit. No tortillas made. Everyone held their breath waiting, waiting for the days to pass, the wheel to turn, waiting for the heavens to circle the North Star five times. Ad astra. To be nameless is a cursed thing. To be nameless is to be lost. To be adrift in the cosmos.
It was so unlucky to be nameless, so heartbreakingly lonely, that children were given the name of the day they were born on (8 Mazatli, 5 Ocelotl, 10 Xochitl, etc.), until they could be ritually renamed a month later. And unblessed is the child born on the nameless day for she must be guarded even more carefully, her bed covered in protective orange marigolds that invite ancestors to gather round, watchful, until her naming ritual. No one watches more carefully than Grandma. A name is a small comfort in the days of high infant mortality. No one should be adrift in the cosmos, wandering lost in time and space, unable to go home.
After I dried my eyes, and exited the tarot shop, I made a deal. A bargain. A sacrifice. I argued with Death. I argued the whole length of Brooklyn Avenue as I walked to my kickboxing gym. I told her, I told Santa Muerte, I’ll let you destroy me. You may rip down all the walls of my tower. Gladly, will I let you peel the skin from my flesh, and dig my beating heart from beneath my rib cage to eat for your pleasure, just do not take him. Do not take my father. And god dammit, Grandma, if you see his spirit you shoo it back. Just shoo it back. Do not call him by his name. And Grandpa, you, you jump in front of Death, even though she is a lady, and you send him back to your niñita that still needs him. Even from the land of the dead you must appease me Grandpa, because I am your niñita and you are my abuelito. You shoo him back, you hear.
In Mexico, on Dia de los Muertos, the cities and streets are filled with the fragrant smell of marigolds and pan de muerto. Altars and tombstones; graveyards and lintels overflow with the bright small flowers. The pathways of the graveyards become fluffy carpets of orange, sienna, rust, and gold. Woven in and out of dark thick hair, marigolds decorate the dark braids piled up on the tops of niñitas’ heads. Lace-shawled or rebozo-wearing painted skeletons become swaying stems as they dancingly throw back their heads, laughing, their blackened eyes rimmed with painted star-petals. Ad astra.
Cempazuchitl call the ancestors back to earth, back to the land of the living, at least for una noche. Candles may light their way, but the fragrance is what guides them to their altars, to their families, to their niñas. Marigolds bridge the seemingly unconnected lands. We do not have family trees. We have cempazuchitl chains.
Following the Spanish conquest between the years of 1519 and 1521, an Aztec temple dedicated to Tonantzin, located on the hill of Tepeyac, in what became the suburb of Guadalupe, was destroyed by Spanish priests and conquistadors. A chapel to the Virgin Mary was built in its place.
Tonantzin, beloved mother of the Aztecs, full of grace, you are celebrated on the winter solstice each year. In 1531, the winter solstice was celebrated on December 12th. On December 12th, 1531, Tonantzin, you wandered your hill looking for your home. On December 12th, 2017, I, too, wandered looking for home, but I have no sons to ask for directions.
Tonantzin, blessed art thou among women, you go by many names. Chicomexochitl (Seven Flower), Chalchiuhcihuatl (Jade Woman) and Coatlaxopeuh (the One Who Crushes the Serpent). Your names tell your story. Wearing your pleated jade skirt, you spread your blue black green rebozo of quetzal feathers, a gift, a tribute from Quetzalcoatl, on the ground, revealing your harvest bounty of Seven Flowers. Our venerated mother, intercessor at this moment and before death, you give all that you can for your children.
Tonantzin, Helper of the Afflicted, Lady of Compassion. On December 12th, 2017, in between portfolio norming meetings, I lit a candle to the Blessed Virgin in rainy Seattle for Abuelito as he lay in a hospice bed miles away in Lincoln, Nebraska, my step-grandmother helping him slide maroon beads through his fingers. Even farther away in the suburb of Guadalupe, Mexico City, incense was lit and the Rosary was prayed for Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day. Outside that same chapel on that hill in the suburb outside Mexico City, copal was burned to you, Our Holy Mother, Tonantzin. We were connected across time and space.
After my birthday kickboxing class, I leaned against one of the large black hanging Fairtex bags, my arms raised over my head exposing my ribs. The team lined up single file to deliver birthday kicks. Gentle kicks to the thighs and the body. Kicking a thigh means happy birthday. A rib means we love you.
My boxing gloves are red, and my shin guards are red, and my ankle braces are red, and my mouth guard is red, and my hair ties are red, but my hand wraps are orange. A little bit of orange protection peeking out beneath the gloves, holding my wrists and knuckles in place.
My mother once asked me why kickboxing. I told her I wasn’t sure, but that it makes me feel safe, and it makes me feel connected to an abuelito I’ve lost, and to a father I fear I am losing. I told my coach, Lorren, that maybe I am trying to prove to my dad that I can take care of myself. I can handle this world when one day his broad shoulders are not there to carry the load, but maybe I am just trying to prove it to myself, too.
In my tarot deck, Death’s robes become wings and and the long tassels become feathers as she flies over a sky-blue background, her brown hair billowing in imaginary wind. She rises, clothed in robes of swirling sienna, yellow, ochre, rust, and carmine as if she were wrapped in a cloak of marigolds. Who could ever fear this tarot card?
But Death listened to me that day. A bargain was struck. I was offered my first fight two weeks later for July 13th. Little did I know, Santa Muerte would peel my ego before she peeled my skin. Slowly, carefully, exposing all the rawness.
Chelsea Ann Hernandez is a Chicana artist from Omaha, Nebraska. She holds a BA in English Literature from Boston College and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. Many of her essays, stories, and book art pieces grapple with loss, erasure, body, violence, migration, gender, and valuations of worth.
1 thought on “Xochitl”
Thank you for this piece. I loved the inner dialogue the narrator has with her grandmother and grandfather, asking them to send their son back to life from the land of the dead if he appears there, for her sake, because she needs him.
The cultural references are wonderful and add meaning to the narrator’s grieving process.