Writing From the Classroom: Dana Gil, Ghost-Seer

This is an essay by Dana Gil, who took my class “Literature and Contemporary Issues.”  She has a real knack for storytelling, and this story, well…something to tell around the campfire.


My grandmother, María Elgega, died three weeks ago. She died in her sleep, at her nursing home, my mother at her side. She had Alzheimer’s, just like her mother had.

Grandma María grew up in Jalpa, Zacatecas. One day she would eventually leave her newborn daughter there with her Abuelita Nacha and Abuelito Rudolpho and go to the United States, where she worked as a maid for the prominent families of Brentwood and Beverly Hills. My grandmother spent her days raising white children and cleaning white cocaine off of shag carpets.

My mother, Dolores Ignacia Muñoz, became a citizen in 1997 after spending her adolescence moving back and forth between Mexico and the States. She was the first to trek the streets of East Los Angeles, the new world of concrete, English, and subtle racism. She often felt confined by her life in the United States.

She feels close to the earth in Mexico; her umbilical cord was buried in the Earth in Tenayuca. Although my mother was not raised by my Grandma María initially, she has a connection to the tías and grandparents that reared her. She experienced the love between the generations of her own family before leaving Mexico.

My grandma would tell me that I was a “charmed child,” but not with much sincerity. She said it enviously, because she could be irrational when she threw away her lithium. Her house had its ghosts. East Angeleno ghosts and Mexican ghosts. Sometimes I wonder if I brought one of the ghosts from Jalpa.

My mother took us back to her childhood home in Zacatecas in 2001 when my sister Celeste and I were about about two years old.  Her grandmother was dying and forgetting, much like her mother would seventeen years later.

One day, we came across the local parish and the cemetery. We visited the graves of my mother’s long dead tíos and tías. She greeted the groundskeeper, an older man, the kind who carried the sage wisdom and the secrets of Jalpa.

American cemeteries have nothing on the magnificence and opulence of Mexican cemeteries. In Jalpa, those with money adorn graves with mini chapels, statues, and elegantly raised caskets. These well-loved graves, however, do not always harbor calm spirits.

By the time we made it into the cemetery, Celeste and I were sleeping soundly, while our mother cleaned her Abuelito Rudolpho’s grave and adorned it with fresh flowers. I startled awake, in a pure panic. I shrieked out “El niño, el niño!” I pointed my finger at the grave across from my great grandfather’s with terror in my eyes.

The groundskeeper heard my screams. He ordered my mother to leave and never bring me back. He said children can see things, and they should not see what lies inside a fresh grave. Mother glanced at the fresh cement stone. A gray cherubim sat praying atop the small elevated casket. She only remembers the first name. Alejandro. Death date: April 2nd, 1999. My sister and I were born on that day.

I finally calmed down. She asked me about “el niño.” Apparently, I said, “Como así” and placed my hands across my chest, lay on my back, and closed my eyes.

I haven’t been to Jalpa since 2004. I wonder what it would be like to see Alejandro’s grave again.

After Jalpa, there were other instances. I would tell mami about the nice man in our hallway. I cried whenever I passed a cemetery, even if I had been fast asleep in the car. In our house, every blanket had the same perfume scent of some long dead tía.

I spoke on the phone with my mother last night. She told me the story again so I could write this. She admitted that, like me, she worried that I brought a ghost back home all those years ago. She wonders if Alejandro still clings to me. What if he’s here, but I am no longer able to see and feel him?

I’m comfortable with that.



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