An Ecuadorian-American reconnects with her heritage through the death of her aunt

Feb 9, 2020 | 2 comments

By Blanca E. Vega

Although I am born of Ecuadorian parents, I know more about being Ecuadorian American than I do about being Ecuadorian. I have little experience living with large extended families as some of my cousins are accustomed which also means that I have little experience with grandparents and death. Naturally, when my aunt passed away, and I knew I was going to attend a funeral in Ecuador, I googled to see what I should expect.

What I found on google were US-centric, US value based descriptions of Ecuadorian funerals. Descriptions such as “loud” and “theatrical” and “dramatic” were pervasive in blogs and other notes on Ecuadorian funerals. What I found in Ecuador was different: a celebration of closure, a celebration of love, and a celebration of a life – albeit, a heartbreaking and moving celebration. I realized how much my US value system teaches me to repress my feelings, and learn how to control them, rather than experience and express those feelings. And the lesson: that expressions of grief end, start again, but end again.

Funerals help provide closure and an opportunity to think about what this individual contributed in my life. Thus, before I go into what I experienced, I want to describe a little about who my aunt is and what she means to me as a woman of color. Unfortunately, I never was able to tell her in person.

El Grito by Oswaldo Guayasamin

What my aunt taught me about race will live with me forever and has helped influence my identification as a woman of color. One of my first memories of her was her saying to my mother “Ñañita, tu hija es sambita! Vistes!” (Sister, your daughter is sambita, you see!).

I don’t remember my aunt looking angry or upset about whatever sambita meant. But I do recall the look on my mom and dad’s faces. My mother, a light-skinned woman, and my father a man who prided himself on his European lineage (like many Latin Americans do) looked horrified and quickly reminded her that I wasn’t.

Of course this made me want to look up “sambita”. And if there was anything that my dad taught me was that whatever he could not teach me, I can find in a book. So that’s where I went. To the dictionary. Samba, I found was a derogatory word for a black person in Latin America. Someone with curly hair. When I was younger I remember being picked on for having big lips and being reminded that my hair was not like my mother’s or my sisters’. My hair and lips did not seem to match my white skin. I was different. I was not entirely white, I was not entirely Black. What was I? Sambita perhaps. It was my first recognition of myself as being a kid of color. Or some color at least.

Kids do see color. When I was little, I didn’t understand why my family believed themselves to be white when I had a brown auntie, an auntie who was china, and an auntie who was india… All my family members look like they are from different parts of the world and I loved it.

Blanca E. Vega

This particularly auntie was a brown woman. And I thought it was curious how she called my uncle – my mom’s brother – “mi negro”. And he called her – “mi negra”. I knew these were terms of endearment and I saw a love, a kind of endearment that I saw between my uncle and my aunt that I did not see very often.

Despite these endearments, I did wonder why “negro” was a nickname while “Blanca” was an official first name….

I never knew exactly how my aunt identified herself racially. I do wonder however if rather than seeing something in me, by calling me sambita, she was perhaps seeing something in herself. In this racialized self-knowledge she then was able to speak aloud and identify being negra in me, despite my light skinned complexion, despite my mother’s white skin, despite what my family would think about having a sambita in the family meant. Whether it was bravery or just personal identification, it was one of the first instances of my own identification as a confused little girl of color growing up in a racially confused family within a growing color-blind society.

This woman, my aunt, continues to teach me. Even in death.

Her funeral began with a wake in the United States. A wake was necessary in New York for all the community she created here. There was a time limit to the wake. We began at 3pm and ended at 9pm. People prayed silently and in groups while children were running around. Children were aware. They said things like “No I want to play grandma now” Or “Whoever says grandma’s name first, wins”.

A couple of days later, we went to Ecuador. My family waited for her body at the airport. From the airport she was carried in a car that was expected to drive around her neighborhood and other places she was known to frequent. This was the first physical announcement of her death. From there she was brought to her Ecuadorian wake. The viewing room had an additional three rooms in the back. These rooms were a small kitchen area, bathrooms, and a resting area for living members. The expectation is to stay with the body until the actual burial. To spend your last moments with her as best as you can. I couldn’t believe this. Stay with her body overnight? But who could stay away? Saying goodbye was too difficult.

In the evening of the wake, my uncle paid mariachi bands to serenade her. Mariachis were her favorite. So a mariachi band played somber music and music she loved. This added to the sadness. The music was poignant and moving and knowing that some were her favorite perhaps added to the emotional roller coaster that we were now engaging in. Men began to cry. Women were consoling the men. Women were serving the tea and other drinks. Men were comforting my uncle and my cousins. Saying their last good-byes, praying over her body, and crying some more.

Wailing did occur. Wailing, yelling, wondering out loud at the cruelty of death. The inevitable sadness that crept over me was – well, inevitable. I could not figure out if I was sad to say goodbye to this woman who has been in my life for as long as I could remember or if perhaps I was sad for my uncle who was losing his partner of 43 years or for my cousins who were losing an overprotective loving mother who continues to care for her children… But soon a wailing crept in me that my American Gringa taught me to stifle and control.

I realized that stifling emotions were not the custom in Ecuador. Wailing was allowed. To tell others to control the wailing said more about me: I could not handle the emotional response expressed at this wake. Why are we so judgmental over how people release their sadness? We give people tissues, we tell people to be strong – for what? Because we can’t handle other people’s pain? So I didn’t ask anyone to stop. They knew something I didn’t. That eventually the wailing would end and that completing a life was in process.

The next morning a mass was said for her. And the goodbyes before the closing of the casket commenced. This was also allowed. No one, unless it was taking too much time, would stop anyone from going to her body and cry and talk and cry some more. This was done before closing the casket. Once the casket was closed, we processed with it to a boveda, which she was to share with my grandmother, a space on a wall constructed to bury our dead. There were many walls. We bury our dead in the ground, but I find Ecuadorians prefer bovedas. I’m learning that bovedas are spiritual alters, a place where people go to communicate with their dead. This is how we commemorate our dead.

At the close of the ceremony, many of us, particularly her daughter, were inconsolable. I couldn’t help but think about my own parents’ mortality. I wondered how would I handle such an event. Would I be expressive like my Ecuadorian cousins? Would I stifle myself like my American upbringing has taught me? Would I be as ethno-centric as those American bloggers who write how dramatic and theatrical Ecuadorians were? Not sure. But I do know that I would ask the same things my cousin was asking out loud: Why are you leaving me Mommy? Where are you going? Take me with you. Please.

How do you celebrate a life? How do you complete a relationship? I once believed like my Gringo-blogger counterparts that having all these rituals that last a week sometimes can be too much. But now I know this to be selfish. Some people need these rituals to say goodbye, to come to closure with a human being you loved. Giving the opportunity to give others closure is important too – not just receive it, but offer it as well. A funeral, the end of a life, should be celebratory, theatrical, dramatic, because we are mourning and celebrating a LIFE.

So I see funerals now, despite the sadness, the wailing, the crying, the pleading, as an act of love. My family, a celebration of race (whether they see it or not), is at the cusp of losing these rituals… but perhaps by writing them down, we won’t.

Blanca E. Vega is an Ecuadorian-American writer and educator whose life’s work revolves around racial justice. She lives in New York City. Reposted from her website.


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