Laurita Dianita

Reflections and art on the topics of public health, social justice, and love

Archive for the ‘love’ Category

A different telling of Rio’s birth

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I know I already wrote Rio’s birth story and shared it here. I wrote it as clearly and honestly as I could, with all of the relevant factual details, the small collection of photos that my globally-published photojournalist friend Ash was able to get me right away, and an attempt to be even-handed in its telling even though I felt heartbroken.

This is a different telling of it. 

I am telling it differently now because I now have all of Ash’s photos from which to choose, and I also now have license to share that the reason for my heartbreak was Oscar and the end of our marriage. We are going through a dissolution of marriage currently (in as collaborative and child-development-focused a way as possible). Though our relationship had been troubled for a long time, the night before the birth was particularly difficult. This was why I birthed through an ocean of grief.

In this version, then, I am visually telling the story (thanks to the gift of Ash’s photo-documentation) with a focus on what really matters to me from the birth. I am telling it with a focus on the narrative that strengthens me, the memory of it that reminds of me of my own fierce will. Most of all, I am telling it with a focus on what provided me the resilience I needed to cross that ocean of grief to meet my baby: the women in my life, the women in that room. They are the fountain from which I drew my resilience. When I had no tranquility and peace inside myself, I absorbed theirs. When I felt defeated, I concentrated on their love and belief. The faces and hands and voices of my mom and Jen are the way I want to remember this birth. Suki hugging me, Deb pressing the hot pack to my back, the quiet presence of Ash and of my sister, the sunlight from the window, the calm female voice singing “Ra Ma Da Sa” from Jen’s phone, the colors of my robe, the blue and purple of Jen’s hair, the tickly feeling of my mom’s gentle fingers, the love I spoke to Rio as I pushed him out, the way I reached down to feel him crown and to pull him to my chest, the sweet way Ida greeted her baby brother with a kiss. These are the things I want to remember. These are the elements that I am choosing to carry with me from this birth, to sustain me in this hard road ahead.

What I have learned in the last six months is that resilience is an active process. It requires choices in every moment to draw on the strengths around us, and it requires that there is something good around us and inside us that we can draw on. These women were my pillars and my lifeboats, and I wanted to tell the birth story again, with a dedication to them.

The collection of photos does begin and end with Oscar, though, because this pregnancy did begin with him, and because the birth ended with him. That is, we will be co-parenting together for the rest of our lives. The kids are ours. The moment of birth is brief; the process of parenting is life-long, and he will always be there, dedicated to our children alongside me, even as we craft separate lives.

But the birth, the birth I want to remember, is not about him at all. This is the story I want to tell.

[Please note that some photos are NSFW…unless you work in the birthing field, that is.]




























All photos by Ash Adams

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December 3rd, 2016 at 10:17 pm

On Love and Obligation

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I took this iPhone pic of Ida as she air sucked (continuing to nurse even after she fell asleep and I pulled her off the breast), asleep in my arms on the beach

Written April 5th in Princeville, Hawaii. Ida Luna is 10 weeks old.

On Love and Obligation

I have experienced two new realizations about love lately.

One is that I have never felt love anything like this before. This full, this large, this deep. It is not intense in the way that falling into romantic love is intense – like a bonfire, like an explosion. It is, rather, a slow flame that can’t ever be extinguished. It feels as though it comes burbling up from a fuel source deep inside my body and beyond my body (I think people call that the soul) and it fills me up, fills my head and face and chest and gut. I love this baby with my heart splayed open. I love this baby with my hands held open, always ready to pull her to my chest, to respond. Which brings me to the second realization…

I think that love and responsibility come from the same source. They’re intertwined in a way that makes them feel like the same emotion, the same physiological and psychological and spiritual process. My obligation to Ida, to meet her needs and let her know always that she is loved and safe, to stimulate her brain and make sure that she is healthy and strong and smart, my obligation to follow her through all of her growth and protect her and teach her the skills to protect herself, this feeling arises in me just as the feeling of love does.

Although this is my first time feeling this so strongly and certainly my first time being the primary person responsible for any child, I have encountered this nature of responsibility-love before. As a third-grade teacher, I felt a deep debt of responsibility to my students, and I loved them.  I suppose I shouldn’t have played favorites in any way, but I couldn’t help but love most those who needed it most, those for whom I felt the most responsibility to offer help with socio-emotional and academic needs. Especially S, who would run to my classroom crying because the children in her classroom bullied her and she would fight with them, S who eventually just joined my class even though she didn’t speak Spanish because I made sure that my students treated her with respect and that she could learn in peace, S whose grandmother beat her and then punished her after I reported it to Child Protective Services. I loved her the most because her soul was radiant and full of kindness and hope despite everything, and I loved her most because I felt the most responsibility to her. (Little 23-year-old me, I wanted to adopt her, but it wasn’t an option.)

This love–responsibility feeling is something born out of our evolution as a species. Empathy, compassion, and protection of the young is a requisite for our survival. As I heard a biologist once say, it is “survival of the kindest.” It is produced by pregnancy, by the prolactin and oxytocin that flow through us as we labor and give birth and breastfeed and hold our babies to our chests, by the hormones present in our partners and family members who surround our children’s birth and early life, by the hormones and impulses that can be produced in anybody—blood kin or not—who cares for a child.

But obviously, that isn’t all. If that were all, everybody would be a responsible parent (well, except that high intervention birth and formula feeding do, on a population level, place some barriers between many parents and these natural processes—nothing impossible to overcome, but a formidable issue). We have to be well enough cared for ourselves and with the resources to offer such care to children. Our brains, if they are too damaged by our own childhood torment or by drug addictions or severe depression, struggle to produce those same impulses.  And we have to be equipped to translate those brain/hormone messages into action; that is, we have to be supported in our roles as caregivers, with knowledge of successful and culturally-affirming parenting passed on, with practical and emotional support available, and without an endless torrent of competing demands placed on us by a callous economic system. There are, unfortunately, many things historical, political, economic, familial and intergenerational, that interfere with this love-responsibility feeling for children and being able to put it into action. And of course, even when we do try to put this into action, we will mess up in all sorts of ways. Lord knows I can attest to that —especially as a teacher. Or we will do our best but the messages we receive about how best to raise children places contradictory demands on us (this is what I am going to write about next). We are up against a lot in caring for children, especially in countries with a high degree of inequality.

This means, I think, that part of this love-responsibility feeling for my baby Ida Luna must extend beyond her and add to my motivation to undo the many barriers that stand in the way of good parenting and healthy childhoods.

But for now, for these last two weeks of maternity leave that we are spending here in Kaua’i, my focus will simply be on feeding and connecting to our baby girl as much as possible, filling her body and brain with a sense of connection and security, holding her to my chest as she is right now, asleep, and observing this well of love that keeps burbling up. (Okay, admittedly, I am also reading a book about trauma and addiction, and also working on getting back in shape, but Ida attachment is my main focus).

Oscar ( took this photo of us at Anini Beach. (But don't worry--we were only in the sun for about 45 seconds. She's too young for sunscreen yet.) Ida squirms most of the time that she's awake and sometimes while asleep, and is doing so here while eating.

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April 6th, 2014 at 10:13 am

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Our daughter, Ida Luna Avellaneda-Cruz, about 3 hours old. All birth photos by Ash Adams

Baby has joined us on the outside.

She is the most beautiful, amazing little blessing I could’ve ever imagined. Oscar and I love her so much and are having fun figuring out this parenting thing—despite a lot less sleep than normal.

Here’s the story of how little Ida Luna came to be born. I’ll spare you much of the graphic detail, but if you are squeamish about how our species reproduces, you might want to stop reading here.

Her due date was Monday, January’s 27th. My last scheduled day of work was Friday the 24th. However, I had a feeling she might come early, and that Tuesday morning, the 21st, I had requested a cervical check, which showed that I was 1 cm dilated and 70% effaced, but with a firm cervix, meaning that I could go into labor in the next few days or maybe in over a week. I went to prenatal yoga on Thursday night, the 23rd, where I received a beautiful sendoff from our instructor and all of the other women there. I was ready for whatever was going to happen.

The beginning

That night before bed, my mom texted me to tell me that she had two women in labor. So when I woke up at one in the morning with what I thought was broken water, I figured I could call her cell phone because she would be awake. Luckily by then, one of the women had already given birth at the hospital and another midwife was with the second one at the birth center, so my mom headed over to my house with test strips. It appeared that it was amniotic fluid, but the findings weren’t super definite because apparently mucus plugs can change test strips too and the color wasn’t super dark. She advised me that we both needed sleep if I was going to be in labor soon, so I managed to sleep a few hours and we agreed to meet at the office in the morning. The second, more accurate (slide under a microscope) test at around 9 a.m. did not show clear signs of fluid, but by then I was having contractions every 10 minutes. So I spent the morning at home getting through the contractions in the shower with Oscar spraying me and then in bed, trying to sleep.

Early labor

During this period of early labor, the technique I used to cope with the pain and to breathe was a Kundalini breath meditation I had learned during prenatal yoga. It is a structured series of four breaths and I was able to get through about two cycles of it per contraction. It really helped me be at peace mentally and physically during this stage. It continued like that, with the contractions coming about five minutes apart, and then four, until I started puking. By that time, which was around 12:30 p.m., my mom had arrived to check me and I was 4 cm dilated and 95% effaced. With this happy news, we headed to the birth center.

Active labor

After checking vitals and fetal heart tones, texting our friend Ash to come, and having a few contractions in bed and one more good puke, Oscar and I headed to the shower. There I labored sitting on the birthing ball, on hands and knees with my arms on the birthing ball, and laying down with pillows for the next two hours. Oscar had on his knee pads so that he was able to help me in whichever position, spraying my hips, back, and pelvis with the shower nozzle. I was very specific about which parts of my body needed to be sprayed because my hips and back and pelvis hurt a lot with each contraction. Ash took photos and he and Ash took turns giving me water or juice or ginger ale, and ice water rags for my head. My mom and the other midwife, Trina, came in to check baby’s heart tones with the fetal Doppler and suggest position changes.

Oscar used the shower nozzle to relieve pain and keep me warm as I sat on the birth ball or tried various positions.

During this stage of labor, I practiced two basic coping techniques. The Kundalini breath had stopped being useful as the contractions had intensified, so my breath had become vocalized with low sounds accompanying each exhalation. I kept my eyes closed most of the time through contractions in order to visualize. Now, I am not very good at deep, in-depth visualizations like many techniques teach. However, I had discovered during pregnancy that if I had to cope with some sort of pain (usually related to my carpal tunnel syndrome), that a very simple visual of heading up a grassy hill bathed in golden light with an apple tree on top seemed to help. I turned to this hill while laboring in the shower. I discovered I needed to include baby in this visualization because what we were doing was a partnership—me birthing baby and baby cooperating nicely and being born. (And baby was definitely doing her part—heart tones stayed normal and, being who she is, she kept wiggling and kicking). I also wanted to stay focused on the purpose of all this, which was meeting our child, who we loved so dearly. For these reasons, I imagined myself carrying baby up the hill during each contraction. Not yet knowing baby’s name, I thought of baby as baby Riolda, as my cousin Lilia had jokingly called her—a combination of our boy name Rio and our girl named Ida.

Each contraction stood by itself. Each one was a journey uphill and, as far as I was concerned during the contraction, it was the only journey up the hill before I could head downhill. I had to take each one at a time. I did think a few times, “Wow, this could last a lot longer. How will I get through it?” But my answer to myself generally was that this is how the species has reproduced for as long as we have existed, so it will work out fine and I better just concentrate on the contraction at hand and trust that everything will progress as needed.

Oscar was smart and brought kneepads. My sister said they are now inspired to buy some to keep at the birth center for labor partners and they can nickname them “dad pads.”

As the pain intensified, this imagined hill became the tundra-covered last uphill of the Lost Lake race. And as it intensified further, I realized I needed to use a different coping technique, so I turned to what Pam England, the author of Birthing From Within, calls non-focused awareness. It is just non-judgmental attention to the sounds around you, to the things that are touching you, to your breath, and to whatever you see with your eyes in one spot.  So I listened to the meditation music on the iPhone, the sounds of murmuring voices, the sound of the water hitting me and draining, and I opened my eyes to stare at the silver and black of the light contraption that Ash had set up in the bathroom. I also then melded the two techniques, telling baby Riolda that for this hill, we are going to play the listening game and we would go uphill playing the listening game together. After Trina or my mom–I can’t remember who–had explained to me that changing positions helps the baby move down and get into the right position, I told baby, “Now we are playing the moving game” or “now we are playing the you-turn-into-my-pelvis game as we go up the hill.”

Eventually, Trina told me that I should get out of the shower and move around to help baby move down into my birth canal and to cool off. I trusted the whole time that my cervix had been opening, but I hadn’t thought about needing to bring baby down with gravity and movement. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to shift the tone and my coping strategies and to enjoy the labor and delivery dance mix that I had made back in the fall (after realizing that dancing through pain helps during kriyas in prenatal yoga, so it would be of use in labor). When the music started – music that I had carefully chosen because not only can I move to it gently, but because it is filled with beauty and optimism and joy – I felt enlivened. I moved my feet and hips dancing in between contractions.  I also ate mango popsicles and even chatted a little in between contractions. During contractions, I held Oscar’s forearms while he held mine and we swayed together, me with my head down, usually moving from my toes on one foot to my toes on the other, stretching my hips out, moaning and breathing deeply. For my mental coping during contractions, I listened to the lyrics (whether I understood them or not—there were quite a few songs in Portuguese, Japanese, and various Malian and Nigerian languages). I listened to the music. I let it infuse me with its joy. While moving through contractions, I also listened to Trina telling me that with each movement I was bringing baby into position, and to Oscar telling me he liked my smile (I had asked him beforehand to kindly remind me to smile) and liked how I was swaying, and all of this felt really affirming. Man I am blessed with who I had there.

Oscar helping me dance through contractions.

Interestingly, in this period of labor and all the others except for early labor, I could not stand for Oscar to touch me in any of the ways I had thought I would want, such as acupressure points on my sacrum or hip squeezes to help my back. My back and hips hurt, but I could only stand to be touched on my hands and arms and sometimes neck. The contractions that hurts the most were the ones where I felt panicked about something being wrong, such as when I asked Oscar to squeeze my hips but then realized my mistake, or when I thought that squatting would help my back as it did throughout pregnancy, but it just hurt more.  Those brief feelings of needing to control something quickly so that it would get better put me back in a state that was not surrender, that was not peaceful acceptance, and so the pain was sharper. Luckily, I can count these moments on one hand.


After dancing for a while and then pain getting much more intense with each contraction, the midwives asked me if I felt like pushing. I said I didn’t quite, but it did feel very different than before. They told me to reach up and feel my baby’s head. It wasn’t all that far up there and I could feel a sizeable piece of it, which told them that my cervix must be pretty wide-open. My mom checked me and I was complete. I said I was starting to feel like pushing, and I wanted to push wherever it would hurt less, which meant in the tub. As they prepared the water, I had a few contractions on the bed on hands and knees with Oscar’s face only inches away, telling me nice supportive things.


In the tub, to help my back, I tried to remain on hands and knees for as long as possible, but had to shift to my side eventually so that the midwives could watch baby and be able to reach down if there was cord around the neck or anything like that. Pushing at first felt strange and unproductive. But after not too long, I learned to smile and breathe and relax as deeply and pleasurably as possible between contractions, and then start each contraction with deep inhales and strong pushes. A few times, I opened my eyes and smiled at the people gathered around—my mom and Trina, the birth assistant, Victoria, who I was so happy to see had arrived (and who checked baby’s heart tones frequently), Ash with her camera, Oscar in the tub holding my leg and looking at me with such confidence and belief.

The coolest, most amazing thing about the birth experience was when my mom told me to put my hand on baby’s head as I pushed. I did this through a few contractions and got to feel the progress that I was making. After that, pushing became fun and exciting and something that I looked forward to in my rest period between contractions. Feeling all of the hair on her head made her very real too, very much Oscar’s child, which we all sort of laughed about as we saw her thick black hair. I didn’t feel like talking at the time, but I was thinking, “I need to tell them how awesome this is.” I eventually got to feel her crown, and fortunately she stayed there long enough that she could stretch out my perineum so I didn’t have to purposely not push to avoid tears. It worked out beautifully, and my perineum stayed intact.

For the early part of pushing, we lit the tub with candle-like lights, but turned the lights on for the later part. It was more or less the same to me; I was in my internal space.


Of course it hurt when she came through what people call the “ring of fire.” I said, “Ow!” very loudly. But it wasn’t so bad because I knew that she was about to be in my arms. My mom told me, “Probably with this next contraction she will be born,” and I can’t imagine a better inspiration to keep pushing hard. (I pushed very hard, by the way, and my mom says very efficiently. This came at the expense of my throat, which still hurts a little, and I burst capillaries in my face and chest–and yes, I know that pelvic muscles do not require my face muscles, but oh well, I can perfect my technique for next time.  But I got her out efficiently and, the midwives observed, with probably a great deal of abdominal muscle help.) Her head was fully born with one push and the rest of her body with the next, and then she was coming up towards me. Oscar helped bring her up to me along with my mom. This was 6:09 p.m., and this might have been the first time since the morning that I knew what time it was.

My two midwives: my mom, Barbara Norton, CNM, and Trina Strang, CNM embrace after the birth

Meeting our daughter

It was so amazing to meet her on the outside at last. At that time we did still did not know whether she was a boy or a girl. We made sure she could cry and her skin tone was good, and once we know she was well we took a look and saw that she was a girl, and called her by her name, Ida Luna. I remember feeling both incredible excitement and love that we had our daughter right there on my chest, and also immense relief that labor was over. They drained the tub, my mom helped Oscar to cut the cord, and they got their cord blood samples to send off. My mom handed Ida off to Oscar so I could focus on birthing the placenta. It came out easily and was kind of beautiful and gory at the same time. I looked at Oscar holding Ida with tears in his eyes and in that moment, just like at our wedding when I had looked up at Oscar’s wet eyes, I felt it too, the gravity and completeness of what had just happened and what we had now in our lives.  Oscar can always ground me in the significance of the experience.

Mi amor always manages to ground me in the emotional significance of an event, as he did when I saw him looking at Ida with tears in his eyes.


My sister, Claire, meeting her niece while I chow on a coconut popsicle and Ida chows down on her first meal of colostrum.

As I was preparing to get out of the tub, I started losing blood, so they gave me first one shot of Pitocin and then another—as the bleeding continued— in my leg, and they did bimanual compression to make my uterus clamp down. I went to the bed where we hung out as a new family for the next few hours, eating popsicles and animal crackers, drinking juice, being fed pho broth through a straw by Ash after my sister arrived with dinner, trying with very skilled and patient help from Victoria to get Ida to suck on my nipples (it took her a while but eventually she did, which helped my uterus clamp down better). They kept doing bi-manual compression on my uterus and finding it firm, but since I kept passing blood clots in between, they put me on IV Pitocin and fluid. I had gotten pretty dizzy and vaso-vagal and had to lay down for a good while.

While we all cuddled on the bed and tried to get Ida to feed, my dad (who is a pediatric radiologist) and the Geneva Woods staff did Ida’s newborn exam, weighed her, etc. My mom was delighted and surprised to find that Ida weighed the exact same as I did as a baby–7 lbs., 10.5 oz. My sister came and visited, as did Jen Allison with a post-partum gift and a hand-dyed rainbow onesie. It was so great to be in this warm, peaceful place with people I loved and trusted for the four hours after the birth, and then to go home that night with my dad camped out on the couch to help take baby’s and my vitals every few hours.

My dad meeting his granddaughter for the first time.

Lessons learned

Labor was not easy. It was painful. But it was beautiful and powerful and peaceful and so worth doing it naturally. What made it that way? Here’s what I believe helped:

  • Loving and competent and confident support from Oscar (thanks to who he is and also thanks to wonderful preparation we received through childbirth classes and prenatal visits)
  • Conversations over the last few months with Oscar about how we might best communicate during labor
  • A friend there to offer quiet help and take awesome photos
  • Being able to trust completely in the competence of the midwives. A few times I thought, “Hm, they’re talking to each other—should I be nervous?” or when baby was moving too much in utero to get consistent heart tones, I considered worrying for about a millisecond and then thought, “Nah, being afraid is not my job. Worrying and thinking is not my job. My job is to breathe and release positive birthing hormones so baby can be born.” I knew that me being nervous or even asking a bunch of questions about my progress would serve no one. So I just did my mama job and let them do their midwife job (and later, let Victoria do her birth assistant job). And they all did a damn good job because they are intuitive and evidence-based and safe and compassionate. I want care providers like them for every birthing woman.
  • No one trying to make me afraid
  • The right music
  • Being in a birth center where I could make as much noise as I needed to without being self-conscious and without any nurses giving me the stink eye
  • Being in a birth center where they use dopplers for fetal heart tones instead of making me lay in bed on a fetal monitor belt, and where I didn’t have to listen to machines and where, as Oscar said, I didn’t have to look like I was sick or be treated like a potential surgery patient
  • Being in shape. I used my core muscles to get baby out! It also helped for maneuverability that I had only gained 22 pounds during pregnancy and didn’t feel burdened by my body’s size in any way.
  • An arsenal of available coping techniques that made sense for who I am
  • No rigid ideas about the “right” way to birth (e.g. silent and stoic, must do “hee haw” breathing, hypnobirthing breathe-your-baby-down-you-don’t-need-to-push, etc.)
  • The understanding going into it that pain serves a purpose for the hormones of birth and that pain is okay, and one need not suffer due to pain (the latter being a particularly useful insight I learned from Vipassana meditation)

For these things, I have to thank the Geneva Woods “Childbirth Basics” class taught by Janie, “Birthing From Within” class taught by Jen Allison, the book Birthing From Within, awesome prenatal care, the birth stories of my friends who have had natural and empowering births, the stories that other dad friends have shared with Oscar, prenatal yoga at Open Space studio, the confidence that my community and all of my people have instilled in me, and of course, my midwife mama for helping me filter out all of the fear and misconceptions about birth and birth intervention that are rife in our society and in U.S. medical practice.

My mama midwife, holding her granddaughter for the first time.

Most of all, I’m grateful to my partner in life and parenthood, to my body and mind, and to our wonderful, healthy little baby.

My favorite photo. This is our family now.

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January 28th, 2014 at 5:42 pm

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Día de muertos

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I am called to reflect, with gratitude and love, on my first experience of Day of the Dead a decade ago. I am called to share how I have seen it celebrated in Oaxaca, México, where the traditional is still very much alive, and I am called to thank those who introduced me to this tradition and those who have shared it with me in the years since.


November 1st, 2012

10 years ago today, I woke up in the small, cement floor home that my friend Cynthia Caballero Rojas shared with her mother, Serbia Rojas, in Southwest Oaxaca City, México. We made breakfast to feed ourselves and to offer fresh food and chocolate to the altar that we had spent the last two days preparing for our muertos (our dead).

I’ve always regretted not taking a photo of that altar, because in all these years it is by far the most beautiful one I have helped build. It was made tall by the two milpas (corn stalks) that Cynthia had lashed together to form an archway, and which we had then stuffed full of cempasúchil (marigold) and cresto de gallo (cock’s comb) flowers. From the apex of the arch, Cynthia hung an apple. The altar was covered in photos and candles, fruits and nuts, marshmallows–because they were her brother’s favorite food–hot chocolate, beer bottles, and tamales de mole negro that we had wrapped in banana leaves under the expert guidance of Serbia and cooked over a fire in a hug pot in the dirt floor kitchen yard. On the ground we had made a tapete (floor mosaic) of flower petals around the stone bowl in which we burned copal. Alongside Cynthia and Serbia’s loved ones I placed my wallet photo of Stevie, my high school best friend who had killed himself two years prior, and a little piece of paper on which I had written “ti voglio bene.”  For the first time since his death, I had found a way to pay attention to and honor this young friend I had lost in a way that was both solemn and joyful, and that was culturally-supported and in community. I was gifted this by Cynthia and her mom, who knew I needed it, and by the people of Oaxaca who have held to their indigenous traditions and could therefore teach their children and the world to do this.

Cynthia outside the Mercado Central de Abastos as we buy food and altar ingredients

Of course, the gift was not simply the altar and my own relationship with my muerto, but seeing how this relationship with our loved ones and ancestors is celebrated on a community level. The night before, our Oaxacan friends Cynthia, Claudia, and Gil had taken me and another exchange student, Katherine, to the village of Xoxocotlán where the people spend the entire night of October 31st in their cemetery, holding vigil and sharing food and music with their muertos. The 31st, Gil explained, is the day in which the dead are called back with music and good smells, the day in which they first get the message to return. For this reason, many communities have musical events in the street on the 31st, and some, like the people of Xoxocotlán, stay up all night.

On the morning of the 1st, Cynthia explained in the morning, we welcome back the angelitos, the spirits of children who have passed away. With this in mind, Cynthia, Serbia, and I brought tamales over to the neighbor’s house and paid her angelitos a visit. Serbia was speaking animatedly to the neighbor when all of a sudden she noticed the neighbor had placed a petate (a woven grass rug) under the altar. Serbia began to cry: “Se me olvidó poner un petate bajo nuestro altar. Dónde se van a sentar los angelitos?” (“I forgot to put a petate under our altar. Where are the child angels going to sit?”) It was clear to me then how real this was. These altars and these visits to the cemetery were not simply remembrance or ritual; they were an earnest invitation to those who were gone.

Cynthia and I walked to the cemetery to visit her father’s grave, and back through neighborhoods whose streets were filled with comparsas: men dancing to brass instruments in full costume. Some were dressed as Vicente Fox or George Bush with plastic masks and suits. A good number of men wore various kinds of sexy woman outfits, replete with very tall heels (and they sure could dance in those heels). Inviting back the dead by offering them a raucous good time.

The next day, November 2nd, the primary day celebrated as día de muertos, the five of us set off to see how the day was celebrated in the neighboring pueblos of Teotitlán and Tlacolula.

Claudia, Feyley Gildardo, Katherine, Cynthia, and me in Teotitlán when we were all about 20 - 21 years old. These are the friends to whom I will be eternally grateful for sharing the tradition of día de los muertos, and for sharing so deeply about culture, art, politics, language, and so much more.

After a day of bus rides, churches, copal, dirt streets, and eating fruit and tortillas bought in the markets, we made our way through the Tlacolula cemetary at dusk and then another in the dark. It was there in the crowded cemetery, its darkness illuminated by so many flickering candles, that Gil explained to us the theme across many places in the Northern hemisphere.  At this time of year, the veil between life and death is thinner. As the earth dies for winter, food–life–is harvested from the earth. Life and death meet, cross paths, co-exist. It is for this reason that the pre-Christian Europeans celebrated Samhain, when spirits would come back to visit (the origin for trick or treating), that the Catholics worldwide celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, that the Aztecs have the mythology of Quetzalcoatl going into the mountain for the winter at this time of year, and why Mexicans sit at their altares to chat with their ancestors as they come back to visit. (Indeed, Gil told me a year or two later that the year after his abuelita died, he was crying as he built her altar, so she came back and scolded him for crying and told him to appreciate her visit.)

Cemetary in the village of Tlacolula. Families clean graves; adorn them with cempasúchil, cresto de gallo, alcatraz, and other flowers; and provide fresh water, nuts, fruits, candles, and other nice things.

As we arrived back in Oaxaca City, we came upon a group gathered on the stone plaza outside of a church built a few centuries before. There was an altar built over the ground, and in front of it, a tapete made of beans, flowers, corn, and other plant materials in the shape of a woman.  The scene was lit by candles and accompanied with a man’s soft playing of the guitar. People wrote messages into the paper laid over the stone walls of the church. Pamphlets were distributed that explained the messages and explained the woman in the tapete: this altar was dedicated to women lost to gender violence, including domestic violence homicides, human trafficking, and the hundreds of rapes and disappearances in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border. The group organizing this was La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos, who would eventually become the organization on whom I based my undergraduate thesis research. They represented the somber side of this day, but did so in a way that was beautiful, congruent with the tradition, and that brought community together.


Me in front of my home altar in 2004. Unfortunately, Bush got re-elected the night of Nov 2nd that year, so it ruined the día de muertos environment.

A year later, back at Mount Holyoke College, I called on my Oaxacan friends for help explaining día de muertos to my friends at school, who had agreed to bring their muertos and build an altar with me. For the first time, I was able to gift–to some small degree–what had been so kindly shared with me. I have tried every year since to celebrate by building my own altar at home (which always includes salmon, Stephen’s favorite food), and by sharing altars and celebrations with others, making a space for our muertos and our memories and our love and to be together. As a 3rd grade teacher, we had a día de muertos celebration in the classroom and parents came for a potluck and art. In grad school, as an effort of the Latina/o Social Work Coalition, we built an altar in the common area for women killed in Ciudad Juárez. Last year, Oscar and I invited friends over to eat and make art and build things for the altar. Among other things, the event served as a way to honor a baby lost from our community and lost to our friends, little Seketl’e, who you can see in our altar this year.

Minimalist home altar this year, due to being sick and busy. We are missing a few departed dear ones and many of the decorations, and I believe it's the first time I've included dogs in an altar (Oscar's idea). But it is our little altar, and it feels sacred nonetheless.

One of my most significant experience of día de los muertos since returning from México was in 2010, when I worked with artists Dena Drake and Melanie Lombard to create an altar at the Out North exhibit dedicated to the topic of suicide in Alaska. The altar attempted to honor those who we’ve lost and to use art and metaphor to explore the feelings that might lead someone to suicide, alerting friends and family to what they could do to help prevent suicides in their communities.

Día de los muertos 2010: Suicide in Alaska altarback of día de muertos altar

What I’ve found is that there is no way that I will have here an experience like that I had in 2002 in Oaxaca. But I can use each día de muertos, each Samhain, each time in which the veil between life and death is thinner, to reflect on and give great love to those who I have lost and to share the space so others can do that as well.

This year, we add la abuelita Betulia to our altar. This year, I honor my grandmother Pat, la abuelita Betulia, my great-grandmother Ann, my grandma Dianne, baby Seketl’e, and my friends Stevie, Anthony, Lorenzo, and Sig. (Yes, and the dogs Ruby and Nena too.)

If you are in the Anchorage area and looking for a way to celebrate, Out North is hosting the 8th Annual Día de Muertos celebration and exhibition of altars:

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November 2nd, 2012 at 9:51 am

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From the Arctic to the Chattahoochee

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I have waited so long to write here about my travels to the Northwest Arctic villages of Buckland (Kaniq) and Noatak (Nautaaq) in January and travel to Georgia and Alabama in February because, being sort of a perfectionist, I want to write the perfect thing, but being an epidemiologist and adjunct faculty member and volunteer, I don’t have time to write the perfect thing. And what would the perfect thing be anyway? I am a visitor to both places and still know so little. So I will, instead, leave you with a few photos and these links to my Flickr collection from rural Alaska and The South. The photos on Flickr tell many stories through the captions.

Oscar took this picture of me as I was preparing for the trip to the Northwest Arctic region (Nunaqatigiich), where it had been -30 to -50 for the last month before we left. I didn’t end up using the goggles while there, in Buckland’s -35 or Noatak’s -48, but instead let my eyelashes turn white only a minute or two after going outside. I liked this feeling, and liked being able to see clearly. I also felt like Arctic Darth Vader with them and everything else on and I wanted to look as friendly as possible. Meeting people, conversing, gaining trust, forming relationships, finding out who you have in common, all these things were the basis of our work up there–and if mouth and nose are covered, I at least needed to show my eyes to do so.

The wolf parka, borrowed from our friend, Kiatcha, helped as well. It is so beautiful, rare, and warm a parka that many people came up to me and touched it, saying, “Aarigaa! What a parka!”  I would tell them how lucky I was to have been able to borrow it. One man hugged me because he was so happy for me to have this parka. As I told Kiatcha when I returned it, her parka is truly magical, and I feel blessed to have worn it.

Much of this talking and relationship-building happened indoors, of course, after we had stripped off a few of our layers. One of the most memorable conversations of the trip was with a woman we met in Buckland and her elder father. They told me and my colleagues about their reindeer herd and how every once in a while, the caribou will migrate through right by the herd, and some will stop and mate with their more domestic counterparts. The children of these couplings, the elder told us, are wilder than regular reindeer and harder to contain. This image of animals that blur the lines between domestic and wild—being a part of or leaving behind their herds—is one that I layered, in my head, with the white and sometimes pastel ice fog hanging over that beautiful, flat land of tundra and waterways. This image of animals and land and sky is one of the images that I most carry with me from this journey in Nunaqatigiich.

I miss it there. A lot.

I took this picture with my Holga. In it, I am on the rocks jutting out of the Chattahoochee River , between Alabama and Georgia, with our 3 and 1/2 year old niece, Lilly, teaching her how to hop from rock to rock, how to balance and climb and descend, how to trust her body and eyes. She was an avid and quick learner and it filled my heart up to see her move from fear to courage so quickly. I love the sponginess of young children’s brains and the adeptness and energy of their bodies. This capacity of theirs to absorb so much, however, is also what makes them so vulnerable, and I have been thinking a lot about this lately as I get more involved in the epidemiology of Adverse Childhood Experiences and health, and as I teach about determinants of health. Children, because they are so open to learning at this age, are also so vulnerable to the violence they see around them or experience, to poor eating habits, to a sedentary lifestyle, to television and computers, to neglect. These years are so important. I’m glad I can be a part of her life and take on the awesome role of auntie during these years, if only in little bursts or via Skype. I’m so happy I can do this with the young children in our community in Anchorage as well. I am so glad that when Oscar and I have children, we will have aunties and uncles—both biological and not—to watch over and teach them as well.

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March 18th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

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Advice I’ve Gotten on the Eve of my Marriage

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wedding invite:

My wedding to mi querido amor, Oscar Avellaneda, is in 3 ½ weeks. In about 2 weeks I am officiating the wedding of my two good friends, Garret and Mystie. In light of these VERY serious events, I have been asking for relationship/marriage advice from everyone I know who has been happily married for a long time—my parents, colleagues, Garrett’s stepmom, my boss, whomever, and from those who are divorced as well. I also ask it of my best friend who has been with her wife for 6 happy years now. Here is some of the advice I’ve gotten:

1.) You are responsible for your happiness. Take care of your own happiness.

-everyone I’ve asked

My mom adds, “Your partner can only fulfil, I don’t know, maybe 50% of your needs. Of course they have to be the most important needs, and then there are some needs you can’t get outside of the marriage, like sex. But you have to find ways to fulfil your own needs. You have to take care of yourself.”

2.) Let your partner be him/herself and you be yourself.

– Connie at work, many more people

3.) “Commitment is what drives the engine, not love.”

-Garrett’s stepmom, Amy

4.) The secret to a good, long-lasting marriage? Hard work and every once in a while  a good therapist.

-my mom

5.) Don’t sweep things under the rug. They won’t go away; they will fester and grow.

-my mom

6.) Let your partner grow and learn their lessons at their own pace.

-Jessica Laura

6.) Touch each other a lot. Gentle, loving touch bonds people and diffuses anger.

-my dad

7.) You choose your partner to be your primary healer because there are some lessons and types of healing you can do only with them. There are lessons to be learned from the difficulties. Take the time and have the faith to learn them.

-Doris, our LCSW

8.) Have fun together.

-Doris & Oscar’s sister, Erika.

So, commitment and work.

Honesty and communication.

Patience and compassion.

Nurturing one another and yourself.

Acceptance. Acceptance. Acceptance.

I presume that’s why Jessica Laura and her wife Julia said, in their marriage vows, “I surrender myself to who you really are.” Because as hard as it can be, you have to be willing to do that, to truly accept, to surrender your hang-ups and fears to that true acceptance.

I am willing, but I will need the support of teachers and friends to know how to do that at all times. I guess that’s why we get married in communities of loved ones.

For that support, for this advice.

I am counting on your help, community.

Thank you for all you’ve already done.

And Oscar, I can’t wait. I am so excited.

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June 21st, 2011 at 9:03 pm

I love my parents because…

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(photo by Oscar Avellaneda)

In kindergarten, Ms. Clutz asked us to write an “I love my mother because…” paper with a drawing for Mother’s Day. In the big open space on top of that newsprint paper with the lines, I drew a ferris wheel and wrote: “I love my mother because shez gona tak me to the Dixn May Fare,” or some such partially-invented spelling. (Oh how I wish I had the paper with me to scan and post here!) When I found this piece of writing as a wisened 5th grader, I thought, “How shallow I was! I thought love was just about her doing little things for me!”

But tonight, I began a little list in my head of reasons I loved my parents, and they were all small things like that. Of course I love them for big, giant reasons—reasons as big as the lessons and patterns of my life, reasons like the way they’ve helped form my character as a strong woman with integrity or the way they accept me. But I find that little things are powerful in themselves, and powerful as symbols of something larger.

So here goes a very short list of the little reasons that came into my head tonight.

I love my parents because:

  • We share fruit and cheese from Costco. One of us goes to Costco and then we split up the food and the receipts. They have the money to buy excess fruit & such, but they don’t like to waste. And they know that I hate to waste food and loathe spending more money than I need to, so they agree to sharing food from Costco runs, as inconvenient as it may be. It’s kind of cute and communitarian of them.
  • My dad helped me move furniture on Friday night even with his thumb in a brace. Half-way through, I fed him green curry which he said looked like second-hand food, but smelled good. We ate in silence as he read, with rapt attention, this book I have on foods from the African diaspora. Then we carried more furniture, using my shawl as a sling to make up for the un-opposability of his thumb. My dad, and both my parents, are so tough and adaptable, so curious, and ready all the time with wry, sometimes caustic, sometimes obscene humor.
  • My mom and I just went and saw “The Kids are All Right” and then talked about it over beer and dinner. To me, the message of the film was about how marriage is hard and it takes work and you can’t let problems pile up without addressing them consciously and compassionately. It was a message shared poignantly in the film. But I was grateful that it was also a message I grew up hearing, grew up understanding from my parents. I love them for demonstrating that you can’t sweep problems under the rug and that the work of love is worth it.
  • I love them for being reticent with their support when I was in the wrong relationships and generous with it now. I love my dad’s enthusiasm for making beer (“Hoppiness is Wedded Bliss Brown Ale,” as he has already named it) and black currant wine for Oscar and my wedding and my mom’s eagerness to help cash in miles to get me to Bogotá to see my amor.

There’s more, there’s always more, and it’s good to stop and note it at times. My kindergarten self, as egocentric as I may have been at five years old, recognized love in the little things, and wrote it down.

(Left, at a District K forum with legislators. My photo.)

(Right, playing Pictionary on Christmas 2009. Photo by Oscar Avellaneda)

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August 1st, 2010 at 10:01 pm

A recipe poem: Salsa Verde Para Mi Amor

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Salsa Verde Para Mi Amor

1.)  Boil the jalapeños:

Yeah, seeds and all.
I mean, I know you’re Colombiano
y no se come picante allí,
but you know that story your mama tells?
The one where your abuela
made the sopa without cilantro
“for Nachito”
and your mama put the cilantro back in
(she flicks her hand as she re-enacts it)
because she knew she’d be eating with him
for the rest of their lives?
since I’m your future wifey
and you’re the chaparro de mi vida
and I’m your aguacate tree
growing in Alaska
to whose roots—and fruit—
you will come flying back
and we will sit across kitchen tables
from one another
for the rest of our days,
pues, te tendrás que acostumbrar.

2.)  Slice the onion:
And try placing it in the blender
but poniéndome aguila
because before I know it
you’ll kiss me with that onion
on your breath,
whole slices tucked away
into your teeth.
I’ll say “¡Guácala!”
and never understand it,
how you find the sweet
in its so acrid flesh.
But I quietly admire you for it,
this iron mouth of yours,
the way you see through
even the worst.

3.)  Skin and mash the garlic:
And this too I must guard
from your habit of drinking it
with cayenne and
waiting to do so, of course,
until I’m soon to come over.
The smell of it:
“Ay, Oscar, ¿Porqué
lo tenías que comer ahora
before kissing me?”
And I search out the line
between asking you
to be considerate
and control.
Then toss the garlic in the blender
with everything else.

4.)  Enjoy:
Disfrútala, with fish, with sopa,
with cuidado, mi Colombiano.
I learned in the cloud forest,
the Sierra Sur of Oaxaca,
from a small woman who
cooked her beans in a clay pot,
to make salsa verde sin tomate.
Y así, mi amor,
when you eat it,
the sweat beads up,
glints of light over the
redenning skin,
across your brow,
across your nose—
your nose, mi amor,
that perfect bridge of shadow
and light
that bridge of indígena and
None of our ancestors
ate like this,
the people of wheat,
the people of potatoes.
But we are adaptors
and you sweat your way through it
like we work our way through
each other
building bridges across
continents and
spirits and
from which we’ll create children
to pass the recipe on,
learning, over time,
to endure.


I was inspired to write this because a creative little girl who I taught in math was surprised when I told her that her poetry teacher, Ashley Skabar, was also a professional food writer. She asked, “Does Miss Ashley write her recipes as poems?” I replied, “I don’t think so, but that’s a great idea,” and I went home and began working on this recipe-poem. I am bringing the original to Oscar, drawings and cursive and all, for part of an anniversary gift. We will celebrate our anniversary together in Jalisco, México, eating comida picosa, camping, biking, swimming in rivers, reading the stars.

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May 18th, 2010 at 1:31 pm

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On last weekend’s “This American Life,” which was actually an old show, the theme was “Somewhere Out There.” It was about finding the one. There was a great story about a young white American man named Eric doing an exchange in China and singing Chinese opera. He fell for a musician there named Yuen Yuen, lost touch with her when he came back to the states, and then, years later, upon returning to China, tried against all odds to find her in Beijing with very few leads. It was a fairytale story of how they found one another and came to be in love. But then it became less fairytale like–she came to the US on a fiancé visa, so they had to get marry sooner than they were ready to. It was rough for a few years. They had to rely on their falling in love story to convince themselves they were worth the work, that their relationship was too magical to let end. But they got through it…and this is the quote at the end of that story that made me bawl when I heard it and choke up later when I recounted it to my own amor:

Narrator: The story of how they met began to feel less and less important. And they didn’t talk about it as much. Now, they have a different story.

Eric: Which is the story of struggle and pain that we, uh, sort of passed through and fought through and overcame. And, y’know, that’s a story that you don’t tell in public. Because no one ever asks, “How did you two stay together?” Everyone always asks, “How did you two meet?”

I love this quote. I love this lesson. I love stories of how people stay together. I guess that’s why I love cheesy Brad Paisley country songs–because they’re about his wife; they’re about pregnancy and daily life. They’re about staying in love.  I’ve seen enough in my little 27 years to know that a lot of the  falling in love songs and movies don’t last long, that they don’t just live happily ever after.  I think we do children a great disservice when the majority of their stories end with only the beginning of the beauty and work of real relationships. (Side note: we also do them a great disservice with the myth that everyone already knows how to have sex so you don’t have to talk about it. I hate that one.)

We all need help holding our relationships–with partners, with friends, colleagues, sisters and brothers and parents–together. We all need help communicating and giving and negotiating respect. We need more stories about this. So thank you, This American Life, for that brief and beautiful articulation and I hope that we create space for more such stories.

p.s. My parents have been together for 30.5 years. Oscar’s parents have been together for about that long. Another family I grew up with, the Blouws, have been together 40-some years. I have access to some stories.

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February 6th, 2010 at 6:07 pm

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“Show me show me show me how you do that trick!”

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Loving you long distance

Can you be crying? My friend, my


How large and salty now is the

taste of that in my fist.

-Marina Tsvetaeva, 1924

My love, Oscar, left last Thursday on the ferry with his sister Erika and their friend Will to bike from Bellingham, Washington to Bogotá, Colombia. Or, as we are all trying to convince them, to take a train to California and bike from there.

Oscar and I held one another as thick wet snowflakes came down in straight lines from the sky all around us, the white illuminated by headlights, standing out before the heavy green of the spruce in that rainy town of Whittier, Alaska. Oscar said to me, “Look at the snow. I will always remember this hug by the snow falling.”

We pressed our faces together and he began to whisper sing to me the song by The Cure to which we began to fall in love at my sister’s birthday party: “Show me show me show me how you do that trick…” I answered back, tears warbling the notes: “…the one that makes me scream, she said. The one that makes me laugh, she said…”

And then tasted his tears on my lips.

Tasted my tears on his cheek.

Both on my fingers as I touched his face.

And I thought of Tsvetaeva: “How large and salty now is the taste of that in my fist.”

But sometimes we want to quote poets at the wrong moments. Tsvetaeva had “reached the end of ending” when she wrote that, and this goodbye is not an end. It’s the beginning of a journey that Oscar has been planning for years and needs to take, the beginning of our relationship and our communication being given new challenges. It is the beginning of certain kinds of growth, alone growth and growth as we explore and expand in the world, as I grow into new jobs and new friendships, as I learn to self-soothe and Oscar becomes more intentional about the ways he wants to live his life. It is the beginning of many love letters and a commitment about which neither of us hesitates.

So, while this long absence does, at times, feel tragic and I hear Tsvetaeva again in my head–

though the time of the train is set

and the sorrowful honor of leaving

is a cup given to women.

–I pretty much stay away from feeling sorry for myself.

Love has survived much harder things than this.

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January 19th, 2010 at 9:26 am

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