Masks of Breath and Song

A replica of the Mexica (Aztec) 'Ages of Man' mask, hanging swathed in orange silk within my ancestor shrine. 

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
- verse from the Catholic Requiem Mass, traditionally used in prayers and rosaries for the Dead

My ancestors are more than just my blood. More than the markers DNA classifications can reveal. It is in the breath of my mother singing to me, the breath of her mother singing to her. It is in the way I make mole, learning from my dead grandmother in dreams. It is in the tears that streamed down my face when I saw a landscape of a certain terrain and then find out years later a distant 4x grandparent lived there. It is twice what DNA tells me and more. And while my ancestors may have been something- a specific culture, a specific bloodline- I am something different. I am their inheritance. All. Of. Them.

Genetics is wonderful, but it is not the whole story. It is not ancestry. I have my grandmother's nose. My father's eyes. My grandfather's hair. My great grandmother's 'don'. My grandmother's temper. My great grandmother's penmanship. But my DNA only reflects half of the story. 1 out of 3 ancestors is British. 1 out of 4 is Spanish. 1 out of 5 is Native American. 1 out of 9 is Irish. 1 out of 20 is Greek. And yet, I have my father's eyes. My grandfather's hair. My great grandmother's 'don'. But genetically, half the story is missing. I have ancestors I inherited 'nothing' from by DNA terms. Yet, I am still the inheritance of all of them. All. Of. Them.

I celebrate them, I celebrate my blood. All those souls and breaths and loves that made me. I will not turn ancestor against ancestor. Their battles were their own, and they are united in me. I will be the antidote to whatever ailed them. I will be the medicine that heals. I celebrate the breath that connects every human to each other, the same breath flowing through each of us since the dawn of time. We are the masks of breath and song, animated by blood and desire, and always more than the sum of our parts.

Flowers descend to earth, Life Giver sends them... 

What do our hearts want on this earth? Heart pleasure.

Life Giver, let us borrow your flowers, those golden flowers, these wailing flowers.
No one can enjoy them forever, for we must depart...
O friends, to a good place we've come to live, come in springtime!
In that place a very brief moment, so brief is life!

- Selected excerpts from Nezahualcoyotl, the Mexica Poet-King (from Cantares Mexicanos, No. 82)

My familial boveda, circa 2006, while I was living in Williamsburg. Embedded in the bookshelves that filled my room, it was a focal point of my work with my Dead for many years. When I moved, it changed, grew and evolved to fit the space I now have. But for 8 years, it was a strong foundation for me- it grew from a small shelf to a cornerstone of my bedroom. 
The living room wall, with pictures of the Dead from both sides. Some dead I knew in life, others are only known through stories and photographs, but I see my family-and myself-in them. I hear whispers, celebrate deaths and birthdays- I am amazed at the guidance, support and stubbornness of the blood. Tenacity amongst progeny. I am thankful my family kept  so many photos- it makes their stories and their presence more anchored, in spite of my forgetful out-of-sight, out-of-mind nature.
My Egun Shrine, or Lucumí Shrine for the Dead. The daily regular of food and drink and such are cleared out on a regular basis, there are always flowers and candles and water present. The shrine always reflects the multiple inheritances of my ancestry, both by blood and through ritual kinship. I offer copal smoke and prayer daily. Maferefun Egun.

I pause for breath and reflection here. It has been a hard month. But I am thankful for my parents, my family, my loved ones. Light to the shadows of my blood, of my mind, and of my body. Light to those dead and spirits that walk with me, for a short time or for lifetimes. I will close with one of my favorite songs for Egun, the collective force of the Dead as they are referred to in Lucumí.  

This is a Yoruba song for the Dead, popular in many permutations in Cuban Orisha tradition. These lyrics were published in George Brandon's 'Santería from Africa to the New World' and perhaps offer an 'original' lyric to a song passed down orally, changed by dialect and time, but not without reverence. Most popularly you now hear "Aumba wa ori" or "La umba wa ori"- this melody haunts me.  It remains one of my favorite songs in the Religion, no matter how the words are said. It is through offerings we commune, it is through prayer we exchange breath, it is through this relationship with the Dead, we gain their wisdom: the citizens of heaven sell memories. 

A nwa wa ori.
A nwa wa ori.
Awa o sun, awa o ma.
Awa o ma ye ya o
Ara orun ta iye.

We are searching for him, we can't see him.
We are searching for him, we can't see him.
We do not sleep, we do not know.
We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow.
The people of heaven sell memories.


  1. Ancestors have been much on my mind, and this is most illuminating. Thank you, and blessings to your beloved dead.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts