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“OUR BREATH ON THE MIRROR” Poem by Ed Frankel, Illustration by Kitti Kovacs (“Sinking House”, “Red Illusion”)

Under the Dodgers’ cap, and khaki work shirt

the woman selling flowers by the Santa Monica freeway

is short, broad, and full as the Goddess of earth

and death– Coatlicue, and you hear

the rattles on her ankles, her necklace

of hands, and skulls shaking

to the heart of a distant smoking drum.

The two snake heads rattle in her hands

as Coatlicue begins to dance.


With a lift of her chin

Juana raises her eyebrows

offering the flowers–Guelaguetza—

to faces behind the glass that look at her,

pretend not to look at her.

Windows hum open or slide closed.

Sometimes people rush and fumble for dollar bills

as they watch the light, then lay the rose

beside them on the passenger seat.


Juana relieves herself at the Arco station

or in the bushes by the side of the freeway.

She is two thousand miles from Tlacolula.

She and her brother each paid the coyote

five thousand  dollars American to guide them

through the labyrinths of arroyos and barrancas

past la Migra, in their blazers with their nightscopes,

across the border, that jagged scar, al otro lado.

She wires a hundred and fifty a month

to her mother who pays the bills,

who makes a payment on the land in Mitla,

who saves the rest for three years to send other children

to hide under the remote pitch of the moon

from the green and infrared lights that search

for silhouettes of caravans and the dreams of caravans,

the heat of human bodies, on a backlit horizon.

They will walk with care past the listening machines

that hear their pulses surge and their mouths go dry.

They remember Eliseo, Macario, and Evodio from the village

who froze to death last year in these mountains

Just three miles from the highway.


You would like to believe that the Virgin of Guadalupe

covered them with her shawl, that the Naguals

came to them in their sleep

and told them that the storm would pass,

brought them posole and steaming champurrado.

You would like to believe that their tears froze like pearls,

that they died in a fairy tale

like the ice princess or Grimm’s little match girl.

Perhaps freezing to death is like falling asleep.

Huddle together, M’ijos, six hands,

six arms and legs, entwined,

three hearts, thick, and slow, and beating.


What are you dreaming Juana, out there by the freeway?

Are you rocking in a hammock years from now

in your own jalapa in Mitla?

You braid flowers and colored ribbons

into your granddaughter’s hair for The Day of the Dead

The smell of the Cempasuchil, the marigolds

and the smoking copal, remind you of roses and oranges,

the gray faces of the gavachos in their shiny cars

stony and silent as the hieroglyphs of the old ones

in Monte Alban and Tule.


The Camazotz call your name Juana,

from their dream gardens and the church bells ring in

the cold winds of the north that bring the spirits of the dead.

Your mother and father are coming across the River Chiconaupan

the day after tomorrow, El Dia de Los Muertos.

they will need gifts and travelers’ provisions.

Lay the path of orange marigolds from the door to the alter.

Scatter breadcrumbs and flower seeds for the birds

which are the souls of small children.

The alter is perfect– gladiolas, chrysanthemums.

Stalks of corn, bamboo and sugarcane arch across time

and the cycles of the souls’ resurrections.

Don’t forget– Abuela liked Chapulines, fried grasshoppers,

and Abuelo Joselito liked his mescal.

Leave them a glass of water.

They have journeyed far and they are thirsty.

Candles, yes, lots of candles to light their way.

Go to the cemetery and clear the weeds.

See that the graves are swept clean.


Put the sugar skulls, with their maraschino eyes

and syrupy smiles next to the old pictures:

Gran Tio Chuy, fuerte y formal

as he stares into the camera.

The Angelitos, the dead little children lie posed

in their parents arms: Refugia, at two years old

on Tia Cecilia’s lap in a white dress

holds a cross to the camera in her cold, tiny hands.

arrange their favorite foods, the seven moles,

home-made mescal and candied pumpkin,

fresh baked “bread of the dead.”

The alter is perfect.

Nothing must be touched by anyone.

The children will return on November 1,

the adults the day after.

They cannot eat but will kiss the food,

take in the aromas and moisture of the preparations.

When they are satisfied they will look for you

to leave behind their good will and their blessings.


And the gavachos will come as well,

Three thousand miles from el otro lado, how strange,

with all their gear and their money,

rushing, taking pictures, que raro.

When they smile they seem sad and hungry.

Remember when one– sin verguenza, shameless,

even wanted to buy the shawl you were wrapped in,

and the blanket you were sitting on at the cemetery.


The tour buses and the shiny rented cars rumble

out of the dusty night into Tlacalula.

Gavachos with video cameras at the windows

film The Day Of The Dead.

When you look at them, the flesh melts off their bones.

Allegados, son iguales.

Having arrived, they are all equal,

like the figures in Posada’s drawings,

Skeletons in shorts, with cameras around their necks,

take pictures of each other.

Donde esta la bathroom?

Skeletons bargaining for rugs and black pottery.

Ask her if the dyes are natural or artificial.

Skeleton children, loud and unmannered

maniosos y malcriados, grabby and badly behaved,

Skeletons full of coming and going

taking with them little pieces of your village

to put on their walls and mantles.


Lights explode beside the people at the graves,

The red eyes of the cameras glow

like the eyes of the Camazotz in the night

who come to steal people’s dreams.

The skeletons covet it all, the sugar sweet holidays,

the rituals, they look south of the border,

to have maraschino cherries for eyes,

necklaces of marigolds and syrupy smiles,

to have their souls become bread of the dead

for the Gods to feast on.

But their pleasures last as long as the marzipan skull

that melts on the tongue and is gone.


Do not mind them Juana.

They covet what the dollars cannot buy,

not just the charms or the pictures of the Virgen

to put on their walls or their refrigerators.

They also want to stop the rush of time,

We are all skeletons in a Posada drawing,

all on our way, coming and going to Bone Town.

We are all borrowers, hunters and gatherers,

who sing and dance to faraway drums,

whiten our faces with rice powder as we try

to commemorate ourselves and those we love,

to see our breath on the mirror.




  • La Migra: US Immigration Service.
  • Al otro  lado: to the other side.
  • M’ijos: Mi hijos, i.e. my children
  • Naguals: Mythical Mexican Trickster animals
  • Champurrado: hot drink made of corn and chocolate.
  • Jalapa: open air palm roofed house.
  • Copal: incense made of resin.
  • Camazotz: Olmec diety associated with night , death, and sacrifice
  • “See that their graves are kept clean”: Blues Musician Blind Lemon Jefferson
  • Posada, Jose Guadalupe (1853-1913): Mexican artist and satirist famous for popularizing the Calaveras, depictions of the skeletons of Day of the Dead
  • Breath on the mirror”: from the Popol Vuh, ancient Mayan Text
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