Tuesday, October 30, 2012

De regreso (por ahora) / I'm back (for now)

It has been a year since I have posted to this blog. The reasons are many, but I didn't initially mean to be away this long. I originally meant to take a short hiatus and come back to talk about Christmas traditions in my home and in Mexico. However, events in my life began to occur that were more important than blogging. Since my last post, I have lost my other grandpa and two co-workers. Three deaths are difficult to overcome for anyone, especially when they occur so close together. I apologize to everyone that had begun to read my blog regularly. I don't know for sure if I will be able to keep up with it, but I will try.

OK, enough of the pity party. It is Halloween and Dia De Los Muertos time again. This year my altar got a bit more crowded, but that just means I get to honor more people. I will try to upload a picture of this year's altar. I have had quite a fun time scaring people at work this year, especially yesterday when the electricity went out for a couple of hours and I just happened to have my Jason hockey mask with me. (Coincidence? Or something more sinister?? MWA-HA-HA-HA!!) Anyway, I am going to leave you with one of my favorite videos that shows people getting scared. This post is short and sweet but there will be more to come. For now, enjoy:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dia De Los Muertos part II

Today is the day we celebrate the dearly departed. All day long I've thought about this and what I was going to post in my blog. I have decided to remember a great man. He was not a famous inventor, nor a war hero in a major battle, nor was he a rich philanthropist. But he is a man that I want to be more like. I am talking about my grandfather, Julio.

Why is it that my grandfather was a great man? The reason is simple, but cannot be overlooked. He was the anchor of our family his entire life. He made sure his family was united and got them through anything that life put in their way. He lost his first wife when they were young, my dad being only 5 years old. He was left alone to raise 3 boys. No one would have blamed him if he had lost it, given up and left his kids to be raised by relatives. But that was not an option. He continued to fight and made sure his kids had everything they needed, if not everything they wanted. He worked hard all his life and he made sure that his children learned the value of hard work. He remarried later in life and had 4 more children by his second wife. He loved them all and loved his grandchildren and great-grandchildren just the same.

My grandfather was a very likable person. He always tried to treat everyone fairly, whether they be an adult his age or a child. You dared not mistreat anyone in front of him. Wherever he went people knew him and would talk to him. He was affectionately known as "Don Julio" by his friends and neighbors. To my brother and me he was known as "Papito Julio," the caring, loving grandfather. No matter who you were or what your background, Papito Julio always treated you the same and made sure you were welcome in his house. He never looked down on anyone. One story of his that I will never forget involves a visit he made to the US. For a time he and his three sons lived in Tijuana. One afternoon he crossed the border into the US for a visit and decided to take in a movie. Now this was a time when segregation was still a part of life and the theater was divided into a "white" and a "colored" section. Not being aware of this, my grandfather sat in the "colored" section. Now Mexicans at the time had it rough. They really didn't belong in either group but were somehow considered "white" for the purposes of segregation. An usher came by and informed him that he could not sit there. My grandfather asked the usher the reason for this. The usher informed him about the different sections and my grandfather was so appalled that he left right then and there. This had a major impact on him and it may be part of the reason that he always treated everyone with the same amount of respect.

I have many fond memories of the times I spend with Papito Julio. We were lucky enough to have him visit us from time to time. My brother and I would wake up early and fix him pancakes for breakfast. He in turn would make us a big pot of coffee, Mexican-style. (That's where you add coffee grounds to a pot directly and heat on the stove. He would also add a couple of sticks of cinnamon.) Pancakes and Mexican-style coffee, what a breakfast. I don't recall how good the pancakes we made were, but in his opinion they were the best because his grandkids had made them. That's another thing about him, he was never one to turn down food that someone offered him. He could have just finished a big meal, but if you offered him a bit he would accept so as to not hurt your feelings. Papito Julio loved to eat and he hated to waste food. Growing up poor in Mexico, he realized that food was precious and not to be thrown out. He was also never afraid to try anything new.

One year Papito Julio went with us on our family trip to Florida and Disney World. I had never seen a man his age act like such a kid! His eyes were full of joy and excitement at all there was to see. I think that my family got more joy from seeing him have such a good time than from any attraction there. On our first day at the theme parks, my mom asked him if he thought it'd be a good idea to rent a wheelchair. I'll never forget the look on her face when he said, "Why? You think you're going to need it?" There was no way he was going to be put into a wheelchair that day! He was used to walking; in Mexico City he preferred to walk everywhere, regardless of the distance.

Although Papito Julio has passed away, I have made a vow to never let his memory fade. My kids hear stories about him and how we are all a little like him. One of his favorite kind of movies were kung-fu and Bruce Lee movies. My parents would rent him a stack of movies each time he visited and we would stay up late watching them. Nowadays my sons love watching Bruce Lee movies and have been in martial arts for almost two years. I can't help but think that if he's watching us from heaven, he smiles when he sees them. We also love to eat almost as much as he did. He also had a great sense of humor and I will always remember him as a smiling, laughing, very jolly person. As my sons and I get older, I hope that we all become a little more like him.
Papito Julio in the middle, with my parents on either side.

Papito Julio with his second wife, Elena whom I grew up with as my grandmother.

Papito Julio as a young man.
One last thing. I said that I would explain the items I placed on his altar. There is the Pan de Muerto, of course. I also added a Mexican flag because he was born in Mexico. Also there is a Mexican pastry known as a concha, one of his favorites. I also placed a package of Abuelita brand Mexican chocolate, another favorite of his. (He liked to eat the chocolate right out of the package as well as mixing it with milk for hot chocolate.) There are also some logos of his favorite soccer team, the Pumas. I also added a bottle of tequila, another traditional Mexican addition to the altar. Also there are some rosary beads, a candle with La Virgen de Guadalupe and a bottle of holy water because he was a devout Catholic.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Part I

Yesterday was Halloween, but for Mexicans the next two days are also observed. November 1st is All Hallows Day, or All Saints Day. November 2nd is All Souls Day. There are many questions about this celebration and its origins. I will try my best to enlighten you about it.

The Day of the Dead celebrations are a mix of pre-Columbian and Christian influences. To the native peoples of Mexico, death was in important part of life. There was a strong belief in  the afterlife and to them death was just another step, not the end. It was common for them to keep and display the skulls of the dead as both trophies of battle and as remembrance of loved ones that had passed. This influence can still be seen today as colorful sugar skulls and painted paper mache skulls adorn the altars of homes. It is a common practice to purchase a sugar or chocolate skull and have your best friend's name written on it. Your best friend does the same and you exchange the skulls on Day of the Dead. This serves as a reminder that we are all mortal and will one day be nothing but bones ourselves. But rather than be spooked or feel somber about this, it reminds us to live life to its fullest and enjoy the time we share with each other while we are still on earth.

Every year near the end of October, as the weather gets colder in the northern hemisphere, millions of monarch butterflies make their way south. It is an impressive sight as they all arrive in the same general area in order to spawn. This migration takes them all the way to the heart of Mexico, just a short distance from Mexico City. The natives that witnessed this were in complete awe. They interpreted this as the souls of warriors that were allowed to return once a year. It is the modern belief that the souls of our loved ones that have passed return to visit us this time of year to check on us and let us know that they will never completely leave us.

When the church arrived in Mexico it brought with it the observance of All Hallows Day on November 1st. Today that is traditionally seen as the day to remember the saints and the children that have passed. November 2nd is the day to remember adults that have passed. Families set up altars in honor of these loved ones. Items placed on the altar bear a significance to the dearly departed. These can include pan de muerto (bread of the dead), favorite food items they liked to eat in life, candles, flowers, pictures of them, tequila and anything else that might remind the family of their loved one.

Another custom is to visit the graves and clean them up, place fresh flowers and even have a picnic at the cemetery. In some towns it is not unusual to spend the entire night in the cemetery. Torches are lit and everyone joins in remembering all those that have passed. To an outsider, this might seem like a morbid custom. But to the people of Mexico and Latin America, nothing could be further from the truth. Whether or not you believe that the person's soul actually returns or not, we realize that by remembering them we keep a part of them alive and ensure that they are never truly gone. We share stories about them and reminisce about the good times we shared with them. That's not morbid, that's a wonderful thing!

These traditions vary from town to town and region to region, but the core is there. These are days to remember our loved ones and to make sure that the younger generations never forget them. We celebrate their lives and also celebrate life itself. Though we may cry because we miss them, we realize that they will never be gone forever as long as we keep their memory alive. We also realize that we will be reunited one day when our time is up. I leave you with a couple of pictures of the altar I set up for my grandpa who passed away 2 years ago. Tomorrow I will talk about the items on the altar and about my grandpa.

Monday, October 31, 2011


I've been trying to find some more scary stories to tell but then someone pointed out the fact that if I blogged all the good stories I know I would not have anything for the blog next October. Instead I'm going to talk about some of my Halloween memories.

Now, in case you don't know, Halloween happens to be my favorite holiday. I like everything about it: the costumes, the scary stories, the decorations, the free candy, you name it. Growing up I enjoyed all the Halloween crafts we did in school. I also enjoyed hearing and retelling ghost stories. Many a time my friends would gather around me and hear a ghost story or a legend. The apartment complex I lived in would organize a big Halloween bash for everyone, complete with a haunted house. (Yes, this is the same apartment complex with the haunted apartment from my earlier post.) That haunted house provided one of my favorite memories, especially since I would usually volunteer to be one of the monsters inside scaring people. I loved jumping out at people as they walked by, making them scream.

Another memory from my childhood was dressing up and going trick-or-treating. My cousins would come over in their costumes. Now, we didn't trick-or-treat in our neighborhood. No, our neighborhood was poor and gave out cheap candy. (I grew up Mexican, remember?) So what do Mexicans do on Halloween? We drove to the "white" neighborhoods that gave out the good candy! That's right, we would pile into one car and drive to one of the nicer neighborhoods around town in order to score some good candy. We figured we were in costume and they wouldn't recognize us anyway. We would come home with bags full of the "good" candy.

I love decorating the house for Halloween. My parents house would have a graveyard or some other spooky scene on the front lawn. I would put fake tombstones and mulch to make it look like fresh graves. Then I would make zombie hands out of wire hangers, tape and spray paint and place them on the graves as if the dead were trying to climb out. My favorite though was the year that I added a dummy in a chair. I dressed it up in some of my old clothes, added a cape and a mask, and set it out front overlooking my graveyard. It sat there all month long and people got used to seeing it. But the twist came on Halloween night when I removed the dummy, dressed up like it and sat on its chair. I placed the candy bowl on my lap and waited for the trick-or-treaters to arrive. Now, everyone had seen the figure in the chair all month long and didn't realize that I had taken its place. As people approached me I would grab at them or jump out and yell "Boo!" HA HA!!

This is it for this post. As I'm writing this my boys are getting ready to go trick-or-treating and I'm going to take them. My next post will be about Dia de los Muertos. Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Spirits of Tombstone, AZ

OK everyone, sorry for the absence but I was in Arizona all last week. On my last day there I got the chance to visit Tombstone, the town too tough to die. When it came to visiting haunted locations, Tombstone was definitely on the list. I went specifically to take one of the ghost tours that are offered in town. I also visited the Boothill Graveyard, where the Clantons and McLaury's are buried. (In case you need a history refresher, those are the guys that were killed by the Earps and Doc Holliday in the shoot-out at the OK Corral.) I walked around in the building where one of the Earps died and then walked the very streets where Wyatt Earp and his brothers walked back in the 1880s. During the ghost tour I didn't experience anything out of the ordinary, but I took plenty of pictures in hopes of capturing a spirit or two on film. After looking over my pictures, I was not disappointed! But before I show you what I found, I want you all to watch this video. This is from a show called "Ghost Lab" where two brothers from San Antonio went around to haunted places. In this clip they feature what is perhaps one of the most famous ghost pictures around, taken at the Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone. (Unfortunately the show is no longer in production, which is a shame because it quickly became one of my favorites.)

Spooky, huh? Well, let's continue with some of my own pictures taken at the graveyard. I don't think the spirits were willing to have their pictures taken that day, but if you spot something that I missed let me know.

 Here is the sign at the entrance:

Here is one of the more "creative" grave markers.

Another interesting one...

Here we have the grave of the patriarch of the Clanton clan:

These are the graves of the men killed in the shoot-out at the OK corral:

After leaving the graveyard I headed into town. I headed down the road and immediately sought out the "Ghosts and Legends" tour. They were set up in one of the historic buildings that line the main street. In fact, they said that it was located where Morgan Earp died after being shot. Not only that, but before the walking tour, one could go inside for a special tour. Well, what more could I ask?

The sign outside the "Ghosts and Legends" tour building.
The inside tour took you through four rooms, each with a scene from the past. I even had a special tour guide, the ghost of Doc Holliday himself! The first room contained an authentic stagecoach from the 1800s. It had even been used in a couple of John Wayne movies. I have provided a picture for you and right away I caught something in the picture.

Here is the stagecoach picture. See the orb on the right?

Close-up of the orb. Is that a face I see??

Nothing else of interest showed up in the rest of the pictures I took inside the building. After finishing inside, I went back out to wait for the walking tour to start. The sun was setting and I thought it would be a good opportunity to take some pictures of the town before it got completely dark. This is where things decided to show up.

Here is a picture across the street. When I zoomed in I saw something...

It looks like someone, or something, was trying to appear.

Now, the two orbs up above may not be that impressive to everyone that's not a ghost hunter. Luckily there are plenty of dead cowboys in Tombstone and at least one of them was willing to make himself known. Now, just a disclaimer before you look. The only thing I have done to the next few pictures is to adjust the brightness and contrast and zoom and crop where I felt necessary. No software was used to add or modify the pictures in any way. 

I was trying to capture the sunset. Do you see the shadow figure?

Here is a zoomed in version of where the shadow person is.

I have highlighted him for you here.
It would have been fantastic if just one of my pictures contained a shadow figure. However, this cowboy was not done:

Here is another picture I took of the same part of town. See the same shadow figure there?

You can see him more clearly in this picture than the last one. His hat is more defined.

I highlighted him again, but I really don't think it's necessary. 
Spooky, huh? All this BEFORE the walking tour even started. The rest of the pictures from the walking tour are not as exciting as the shadow person, but we still got some orbs that wanted to show up. One of the first locations was an empty lot between two buildings. Our guide explained that a dance hall once stood there and that to this day witnesses report seeing orbs and ghostly people dancing where the dance hall once stood. I took as many pictures as I could. Most of them showed nothing but a dark empty lot, until I got to the last one.

An orb, right where our guide said they were reported.
The following pictures are from a building on one of the corners. I don't recall what our guide said about the building, but it had to be interesting for me to have snapped a couple of pictures. Again, we can see some orbs.

Quite the orb party, huh?

A couple of more orbs, albeit not as visible as the previous ones.

The next pictures are from one of the "hot spots" for spirit activity. The building where the visitor's center now sits was a bank back in the 1800s. Our guide explained that being a bank in an old west town, it was robbed quite a few times and quite a few men were shot. Later it became a hospital and again saw its share of death. I took several pictures there and again we can see some orbs that came out to play.

Another haunted location is Big Nose Kate's Saloon, named after Doc Holliday's main squeeze. The business sits where the Grand Hotel once stood. Our tour only included walking by it, but I had the chance to eat dinner there afterward. Alas, no ghosts wanted to play in there.

The picture is from earlier in the day. It's a great place to eat and have a drink!
After the tour our guide suggested that we go take some pictures at the mine behind town. During the day you can tour the mine, but it's closed at night. This didn't matter, as many of the miners who died are still down there since the bodies were never recovered. Our guide all but guaranteed that we would get something in our pictures even if we just took them from outside the gates. Sure enough, he was right.

Just outside the gates to the old mine. See all the orbs?

Another pic, another orb. This one is near the top middle of the picture.

One more orb.
There you have it, the best ghost pictures that I have from my trip to Tombstone. I sure hope I get to go back because there are many things that I want to do there, including the lights-out ghost hunt at the haunted Bird Cage Theatre. Maybe next time I'll see our dark cowboy again, who knows?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tio Fili (Uncle Phil)

Part of growing up Mexican is hearing all the ghost stories from your family and all about the haunted places your relatives live in. This time I am going to tell you about my Tio named Filiberto, Fili for short. (I guess he'd be Uncle Phil in English, just like in "Fresh Prince!")

My Tio Fili was quite a character. He was actually my great-uncle but in Mexico everyone is your tio. Tio Fili was a man who devoted a lot of time to church. He was of the belief that one should never be vain about his or her looks. He wore the same old tattered clothes every day, topped off with an old hat. Another of my uncles and I even nicknamed him El Granjero (The Farmer) because of his clothes. I know, this was mean, but I was a child and my uncle was just as immature. Anyway, Tio Fili never wore new clothes. In fact, when he died my relatives found a wardrobe full of clothes that had never been worn. They had just been folded up and put away. Unfortunately they had been in there so long that the creases had begun to dry-rot and all had to be thrown away.

Being the gifted audience that you are, I'm sure that you have deduced that Tio Fili is dead. He died after being hit by a bus well over 20 years ago. Although I hadn't seen him since I was 6, I still had quite a few memories of him. Aside from the clothes, I remember walking into his room when I was a toddler and he would always offer me a piece of chocolate. I also remember how he liked to pinch cheeks. He lived in a one-room shack made of adobe on the same property as my great-aunt (his sister), my grandpa (my mom's dad) and us. To say that he lived a modest life would be an understatement. The mystery is that he received a pension check every month, but no one ever saw him spend it. As I said before, he never wore new clothes and jewelry and other luxuries were out of the question. It's entirely possible that he was donating all his money to the church, but some say that he left a small fortune buried on the property.

Ah yes, buried wealth. It is often said that spirits haunt the place where they left treasure of some kind. What does that have to do with Tio Fili? Well, even after he passed away he refused to leave his home for good. He was spotted around the property for years after his death. One of my cousins, who never knew him in life, saw him frequently. My aunt tells us that as a little boy he would come running into the house, sweating as if he'd been running. When she questioned him he would tell her that Tio Fili was chasing him and trying to pinch his cheeks. When he was even younger he would be in his crib and then start crying, claiming that the "strange man in the hat" was waving at him through the window and making faces at him. The descriptions that he gave fit Tio Fili, an older man with old tattered clothing wearing a farmer's hat. Like I said, he had never met him when he was alive and there were no pictures of him around.

As if that wasn't enough, it's possible that my brother saw him on one occasion as well. We were visiting one year and my brother asked us who the man in the hat was. I said that there wasn't anyone wearing a hat and he said that an old man wearing a hat had just walked by the window. We couldn't find anyone that evening where he saw him. It's possible that he had seen Tio Fili walking around.

Eventually no one saw Tio Fili anymore, at least I haven't heard of any recent sightings. Perhaps next time I visit my relatives I'll keep an eye out for him.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Ghost Tracks of San Antonio

I think it’s about time for a ghost story from my hometown of San Antonio. San Antonio is one of the oldest, most historic cities in the country. The city was founded in 1691 by the Spanish and has seen its share of battles and important events in history. All this also makes San Antonio one of the most haunted cities in the country as well. One cannot travel far without hearing about a haunted place, whether it’s the Alamo with the spirits of the defenders that died there and the Menger Hotel next door with its own resident ghosts or the spirit of Native Americans that appear walking along roads, you’re sure to find a good ghost story there.

One of the most often told stories that I heard growing up was that of the haunted railroad crossing. It’s almost a rite of passage in San Antonio for you to visit the haunted railroad crossing and experience it for yourself. This is one of those stories in which the details vary depending on who tells it, but the main points remain the same. Now, I could find the exact place in my sleep as many times as I went growing up and as many times as I took people to experience it. So, without further ado, let’s get on with the story.

The events of this story take place in the 1930s. The decade may change to the 40s or 50s, but we will stick with the 30s. A bus full of children was making its way through a neighborhood on the Southside of town. As they crossed the railroad, the bus stalled. A speeding freight train was unable to stop and it crashed into the bus, killing most of the children. Because of the circumstances in which they perished, the spirits of the children knew no rest. Any car that stalled on the tracks from that day forward was mysteriously moved off the tracks, as if pushed by tiny hands. The ghost children would make sure that no one else would ever suffer their fate. If you visit the railroad crossing today and park your car near the tracks, place it in neutral and turn off the engine, your car will also be pushed across the tracks. Several people have reported that mysterious tiny handprints appeared on their trunk, bumper and doors after their car had been pushed. Some have even dusted their cars with baby powder in order to get a better look at the tiny handprints. A drive through the subdivision that was built there reveals streets with names like Shane Road, Cindy Sue Way, Nancy Carole Way and Laura Lee way. These are the names of some of the children killed that day. I have an uncle who is a major skeptic; he’s an atheist in fact and doesn’t believe in anything. One night his buddies got him drunk and offered to take him home. They decided to make an unannounced stop at the ghost tracks just so my uncle could experience it for himself. He was not happy about that but he had no choice. As the car began to move, he became agitated and said that he refused to believe this because it HAD to be some kind of setup. He opened the car’s door and stuck his foot on the ground in an effort to try to stop the car’s movement. What happened next was so frightening that it sobered him up. He claimed that unseen hands grabbed his leg, pushed him back in the car and shut the door. That was over 20 years ago and he’s never been back since.

I have been to those tracks so many times, that eventually I began getting out of the car and walking behind it as it was pushed across the tracks. I have seen the handprints on the car and have watched as cars seem to be pushed uphill and across the tracks. I’ve heard the skeptics’ arguments and have read investigations that attempt to debunk the story. Still, it makes for a great story and a fun experience. Plus, someone once told me the following: if enough people visit a location and expect ghosts to be present, eventually ghosts WILL be drawn to the area. Whether or not the bus accident happened at that location, enough people have been there expecting something to happen. The railroad crossing has now taken its own energy and haunting.
By the way, if you are ever in San Antonio and want to visit the haunted tracks I will tell you where to go. The tracks are located on the South part of town in the vicinity of the San Antonio Missions, specifically near Mission Espada. Find Villamain Road and follow it. Eventually the railroad tracks will run parallel to the road and the road will turn into Shane Road. There is a baseball field there and on any given night you may see a line of cars waiting to be pushed across by the ghost children. There you go, happy haunting!