We stood in the church sanctuary, surrounded by piles of bright tissue-paper flowers, festive streamers, and banners of the paper cut-outs known in Mexico as papeles picados—all joyfully fashioned the week before by those of us who meet every Thursday as Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith). We went to work decorating, bringing to life a colorful ofrenda (altar) for our November 2 Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration.
When we were finished, Berta added a plate of fruit, explaining that she loved the shiny color of the tangerines and the sweet aroma of the guavas. She seemed especially tired that day. But we had no idea that she would hold the place of honor at the heart of our ofrenda. Nothing could have prepared us for that shock. Only 38 years old, the mother of a 12-year-old daughter, Berta passed away three days later.
When we gathered again, Carmen and Rosalinda knelt in front of the ofrenda, clutching their rosaries, leading the rest of us in prayer. Berta grinned out at us, surrounded by flowers, candles, and her favorite foods, offered in the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead. Heaped on plates and in bowls were tamales, snap peas, pink wafer cookies, and chicharrones—wheels of fried pork rinds—doused with the blazing hot sauce valentina.
I smiled when I saw the food. Berta had a mischievous sense of humor, and we had two running jokes between us. She never thought I ate enough of her food at our weekly Mujeres lunches. When she urged me to eat more, I would ask, “Picoso?” (“Is it spicy?”). “No, no!” she would laugh, as I took a bite of her mole or carnitas that filled my mouth with fire and my eyes with tears.
We also teased each other about our language struggles. Berta laughed and laughed at my futile attempts to get my tongue to roll the Spanish double-r. And it seems I have the absolute worst name for Spanish speakers, whose words are all phonetic, rendering Joyce Hollyday as “Hoy-say O-ye-die.” With practice, Berta conquered the strange hard “J” sound that doesn’t exist in Spanish, but she insisted on pronouncing my first name with two syllables.
Gathered around the ofrenda, we wept our way through the praying of the rosary, and then we shared our Berta stories. She adored her daughter María and held every baby she ever encountered. She loved our summer afternoons with all the kids in the community swimming pool. When friend Becca and I returned from our trip to the Arizona-Mexico border with hand-painted Mexican Christmas ornaments for everyone, Berta looked over each candle, angel, bell, and bird, then grinned at me and said, “Can I have two?” She had a hard life, plagued with physical difficulties, but we never heard her complain. She asked every Thursday for prayers for all the people suffering from illness. The common mantra about our dear friend after her death was, “She was small in stature but big of heart.”
The most renowned of our Berta stories happened at the end of our second annual Lunch with the Law—a bold idea by the mujeres to host a feast for our county sheriff and his deputies, our chief of police and other local law enforcement officials, in the hopes of getting to know them and avoid ever being deported. The discussion over lunch centered on the struggles that the mujeres and other undocumented immigrants have because they are not allowed to get driver’s licenses in North Carolina. Berta stood as tall as she could and held up the picture she had just taken on her phone of the chief of police, declaring to him, “If you ever try to give me a ticket for driving without a license, I’m going to show you this. You can’t give me a ticket—you ate my gorditas!” The room erupted in laughter, with the chief of police laughing the most heartily.
For nine nights the family and friends of Berta packed into her tiny home, spilling out into the yard, praying the rosary, observing the Mexican Catholic tradition of novenario. Huddled with Berta’s loved ones around the homemade altar filled with flowers and candles, I felt overwhelming gratitude to be a small part of this community that knows well how to mourn, remember, and celebrate.
Berta was laid in her casket dressed like Our Lady of Guadalupe, in a bright red satin dress and green mantle adorned with gold braiding, holding her rosary and two white flowers. Tears flowed again as we each had our moment to say goodbye to our sweet friend. As I bent over and touched my lips to her forehead, I smiled remembering the last time I dropped off Berta at her home. She thanked me and walked up onto her porch, where two Mexican Christmas ornaments in the shapes of a parrot and a peacock danced in the breeze over her head. She waved. Then she called out, “I love you, Joy-eece.” I love you too, Berta.