Saturday is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, the Mexican remembrance of the departed. Every Mexican or Chicano neighborhood has its own folk tale about the cultural tradition. This story is provided by the co-director of the Mark Taper Forum's Latino Theatre Initiative.
Around this time of year when the sun goes soft and the nights get longer, I'm always reminded of a story about a haunted house. It takes place in Boyle Heights near Molt and 4th streets. The house is still standing east of Soto Street near 2nd. The story goes something like this:
The busybody Dona Cuca almost never left her casa except to lunch on juicy morsels of chisme at the Hollenbeck Senior Center, known to family and friends as Gossip Central. So when she missed lunch on a cold winter day in 1977, la Josie, Dona Cuca's gossip sparring partner, went to the house to check up on her comadre.
She found Cuca had died peacefully on her Posturepedic, with a smile on her face and her favorite Puccini opera skipping over and over again on the old record player her husband had bought for her at Deardon's. She was buried at Evergreen Cemetery alongside her beloved Memo, serenaded by a band of musicos hired from Mariachi Plaza at 1st and Boyle.
La Cuca's house lay empty for years, picture-perfect with its veranda and shady avocado tree. Every other Saturday, Clyde Shiraki, the Japanese neighbor who spoke espanish, would mow the lawn and water the pink geraniums. La Cuca's sons, Cesar and Ernie, brokenhearted that she had passed on, could never bear selling the jefita's house. They left it just as she had left it, a monument to her life and commitment to the art of gossipiando. At least, that's what they told the neighbors because nobody, except la Josie, would believe the real story.
La Josie suspected something wasn't right when she heard la Cuca's pots and pans banging around, and smelled beans cooking on the Wedgewood. Sometimes, in the cool evenings, when she would walk her basset, la Daisy, she could hear la Cuca singing "O Mio Babbino Caro" as if she were Maria Callas.
"Ay, I can't walk by that house without getting the heebie-jeebies," la Josie would say. "La Cuca's haunting it, I tell you." Daisy howled and everybody, except Cesar and Ernie, ignored her. The boys knew something was awry.
It seems La Cuca was restless, trapped between two worlds, neither alive nor dead, and couldn't keep busy enough in limbolandia. To fill her time, she fussed over her very living sons. Her finger-pointing voice would fill their heads. "I told you, mijo, to move west. But Echo Park? It's not west enough. And this hill, mijo. Look at your brother. At least he moved to Silver Lake. It's bien purty there."
La Josie was determined to prove that her late comadre was indeed haunting the house. She gathered el Ernie and el Cesar. "Your mama's spirit is inhabiting the house lease free. We've got to put her to rest. I've got a plan."
So, on Nov. 1, with the blessing of la Cuca's beleaguered sons, la Josie began construction of the biggest Day of the Dead altar the neighborhood had ever seen. She carted bundles of marigolds and candles into the house. She cooked Dona Cuca's favorite chicken mole dish, chose the loveliest pictures of Cuca, her family and her oldest friend, Charlie the Chihuahua. La Josie bought the finest tequila Food for Less offered, as well as a new shawl from Sears on Soto. As midnight neared, she finished the final tissue paper cutouts and hung the papel picado delicately over the altar. The last family member left and Josie settled in for the night, hoping to get a glimpse of her much missed amiga.
She was startled awake in the morning by a howling Daisy and a knock on the door. La Cuca's sons and their children barged into the house. "Did she visit last night? Did you see her?" everyone asked nervously. They examined the altar in anticipation and proclaimed the altar a success. The tequila had been opened and drunk. "Oh, no, ninos," admitted Josie, "that was me. I had a little cough, tu sabes, and used it as tonica."
A sigh of disappointment filled the room as Josie, almost in a trance, slowly walked toward the altar, staring intently. She clasped her hands, turned to Cuca's family and proclaimed: "La Cuca feasted in style last night! There is mole on the shawl!" She turned to Cuca's harried sons: "Your mother is free."
"There's mole on the shawl!" everyone shouted. "La Cuca is free!"
News traveled fast and before long everyone near Mott and 4th knew the story of the busybody Dona Cuca and her finger-licking appetite for the dark chocolate sauce. Every year, on the eve of Nov. 1, you can hear the faint howling of la Daisy announcing the arrival of Cuca on el Dia de los Muertos as the smell of rich mole sweetens the night air.