On November 2, at the Day of the Dead celebration in San Sebastián, my husband and I gazed sadly at the ofrenda, the altar, dedicated to the memory of Doña Conchita Sanchez Encarnación who died four months ago. Under the portal on the plaza, at the Presidencia, the Pabellón, and El Fortin Restaurant, white draped altars, rising in tiers, honored her and other lost neighbors. There were loving arrangements of photos and candles, dresses or jackets, mirrors positioned to reflect the still-living, bowls of corn kernels, beans, crosses formed of sand, and golden flowers—not here the showy pom-pom marigold, but a modest, wild variety from roadsides and back gardens. And, to the right of each altar, a metal wash stand holding a simple white enamel bowl and pitcher, chipped and dented. Jews and Moslems wash before praying for the dead; symbolically, so does Catholic San Sebastián.
Doña Conchita had turned her front room into a museum. It was a popular stop for visitors who listened to her recitation of the “I’m My Own Grandpa” convolutions of three families who vowed to intermarry in order to preserve la purissima sangre, their Spanish bloodline. Her collection of studio wedding pictures, old furniture, chests, scrip from the mines, a silk and lace christening dress fit for royalty, and photos of generations of babies wearing it, was San Sebastián captured in its heyday.
A year or so ago, we visited Doña Conchita with an electronic recorder and asked her to tell us more stories about her life and the history of the town. We didn’t have to beg. She told how her family fled during the revolution, locked their valuables in a room, and went off with the key. They were quite indignant that the room, though still locked, was empty when they returned thirty years later. And she told us about a famous tragedy: A wedding party, everyone who was anyone in San Sebastián, went out on an excursion boat in Lake Chapala. As it pulled to shore, they rushed the side and overturned. The bridegroom (from Hacienda La Quinta) was drowned, among many others, when he tried to rescue a child. The bride was pulled from the water by a man who tried for the rest of their lives to get her to marry him. Her answer remained the same: “I am already promised.”