Miguel almost immediately tried to hide all of his prized possessions from view as light suddenly shined in, but relaxed as he saw that it was only Dante.
“Oh, Gracias a Dios , solo eres tú,” he sighed in relief, then gestured for the dog to come in. “Date prisa y entra aquí, Dante!”
Dante wriggled into the hideout. Seeing that the boy was hunched over something, he peeked around his shoulder.
“You need to stay quiet, or else you’ll get me into trouble, boy,” Miguel whispered. “They’ll hear us.” He revealed a makeshift guitar, crafted from various items from a junkyard. He took a black marker, drawing out a nose on his version of De la Cruz’s skull guitar’s head. “Hah, can you imagine someone actually wanting to hear me?” He tuned the guitar. “You’re the only one who doesn’t have a problem hearing me play…”
Dante didn’t seem to understand the boy’s words, merely giving the child a sloppy lick in return.
“Ick!” the boy laughed in disgust, pushing the dog away. He strummed the guitar, grinning as the strings let out a perfect tune. “ Maravilloso !” He went further into his attic, where an ofrenda of Ernestina de la Cruz was set up. Posters, songbooks, candles and even an old TV with a bunch of tapes featuring Ernestina’s greatest moments were arranged with care.
All of this work, just so he could have a place where he could feel like he was at home, at a place where he could be himself.
He lit the candles with reverence, the light illuminating an album cover of De la Cruz holding her skull guitar. The boy couldn’t help but compare the head of his guitar to his idol’s, imitating her pose and smile. He was getting there with his guitar, slowly but surely.
He switched on the TV and pushed a tape into the VCR, watching the montage of so many marvelous moments from Ernestina de la Cruz’s films play out.
In a clip from A Quien Yo Amo…
“I must sing,” Ernestina insisted. “I must play my guitar, and dance to its rhythm. You have to understand that the music – it isn’t just something I feel inside of me. It’s a part of me. ”
Miguel began to strum his guitar, with the mariachi’s words of wisdom echoing throughout his mind. More clips played along with each plucking of the guitar’s strings.
“Whenever life is at its worst, playing my guitar always manages to keep me going.”
In another clip from A Quien Yo Amo:
“The rest of the world follows these strict rules and regulations, but I refuse to live that type of life,” Ernestina said as she stepped closer to a man in a tux, while she was in a mariachi suit. “Instead, I follow my heart.”
Miguel gagged at the sight of his idol passionately kissing some random man, rolling his eyes at the cheesiness of it all.
“I always get this feeling, like there’s a song in the air and it’s playing just for me… do you feel it, too?”
As he watched her play the guitar in the video, he repeated the melody on his own guitar.
“Cerca está el amor, ya se siente su encanto,
Nunca creí que algo así iba a llegar para mí.”
As a well-meaning priestess in Nuestra Iglesia, Ernestina told a nun: “You need to have faith, hermana.”
“Oh but Madre, he will never listen!” the nun replied.
“He will listen…” Ernestina pulled out her guitar, making her usual pose as she held it. “…to music !” With that, she continued singing, “Una canción, una canción llega hasta el corazón…”
“Nunca subestimes el poder de la música…”
Miguel’s eyes closed as he lost himself withing the music. His tune intertwined with the melodies played on the TV set.
The clip jumped forward:
“But my mother - she will never give me her permission!” Lorenzo said in despair.
“I’m not going to ask for permission,” Ernestina stated firmly. “When your moment comes, you cannot let it go - you must seize it !”
Miguel opened his eyes, only to see the tape nearing its end as the last clip was shown – an interview taken from when Ernestina was at the peak of her career.
“Señora de la Cruz, what did it take for you to seize your moment?”
“I had to have faith in my dream,” the musician answered honestly. “Nobody was going to come and give it to me. It was up to me to achieve that dream, capture it and see it come true.”
“…and see it come true,” Miguel repeated. The tape ended, allowing the words to sink into him. He reached for the flyer that advertised the plaza’s talent show. “No longer will I hide away, Dante. I have to seize my moment and live it! I’m going to play in that plaza even if it costs me my life!”
He paid no mind to the preparations for the celebration occurring within the compound as he went up to the rooftops and snuck across with his guitar, sliding down a long wooden board. He was about to head to the plaza, only to stop as he heard his father’s voice.
“Mamá, dónde deberíamos poner esta mesa?”
Miguel and Dante backed up as Enrique and Berto rounded the alleyway’s corner.
“En el patio, mijos.”
Miguel’s heart nearly stopped as he saw his grandmother sweeping the sidewalk behind him.
“Down by the kitchen?”
“Sí. Next to the other one.”
Miguel rushed into the ofrenda room, ushering Dante past a sleeping Coco. He shoved both the dog and the guitar under the ofrenda. “Abajo, baja!”
“N-nothing!” he said quickly, turning to face his grandmother, father and mother. The adults stared straight at him, making a pit form in his stomach as he thought he’d been caught. “Mamá, Papá, I–”
Enrique lifted a finger, silencing his son. “Miguel… your abuelita had a fantastic idea! We’ve all decided that it’s time you join us in the workshop!”
A leather apron was thrown around Miguel’s shoulders. “ What ?!”
“No more shining shoes,” Enrique continued. “From now on, you’ll be making them every day after school!”
Elena squealed as she shuffled toward Miguel, squeezing his cheeks with pride. “Our Migueli-ti-ti-ti-to continuing the family tradition on Día de Muertos! Your ancestors will be so proud, especially your Papá Héctor!” She gestured to all of the shoes on the ofrenda. “You’ll craft huaraches just as your Tío Víctor had!”
“And wingtips like your Papá Julio, and drivers like the twins–”
Miguel moved away from his grandmother. “But what if I’m no good at making shoes? What if – what if I’m not cut out for the business at all?”
“Ah, Miguel,” Enrique chuckled, pointing towards the ofrenda. “You have your family – your Papá Héctor – to guide you on every step of the way. You are a Rivera, and a Rivera is…?”
“…a shoemaker, through and through,” Miguel completed the family’s phrase.
“That’s my boy!” Enrique hugged his son, before he ran out to call for his brother to break out the cocktails.
Luisa smiled a little at her son, cupping his cheeks before following after her husband.
After his grandmother smothered him with a bunch of kisses, Miguel found himself alone in the ofrenda room, his spirits falling.
Suddenly, there was a noise coming from the ofrenda. He turned and much to his horror, found Dante eating some of the food left on the ofrenda. “Dante, stop! No!” He tried to pull the dog away from the ofrenda, only for the xolo to stick his claws into the ends of the cloth as he kept licking at the mole. All of the pictures and offerings shook, until the torn photo of Papá Héctor and his wife fell to the ground, with its frame cracking on impact.
“Oh no !” Miguel picked up the old photo, moving away the shards of glass. “No…”
As he tried to think of how he was going to fix the frame, the photo unfolded to reveal another part of the photo – one that had been hidden for years.
By the faceless woman’s feet was a guitar, specifically a white guitar with a skull head.
“Ernestina de la Cruz’s guitar…?” he whispered, filled with confusion.
Miguel turned to see Coco pointing at the picture in his hand.
“ Mamá ?”
The boy’s eyes went wide as it dawned on him. Could it actually be possible that his idol was his great-great grandmother? “Mamá Coco, is Ernestina de la Cruz your… your mamá ?”
“Mamá, Mamá !”
He immediately raced out of the room to his hideout, grabbing the record album with the cover of Ernestina de la Cruz holding her guitar. He compared the two photos, finding that it was an exact match.
His great-great grandmother was Ernestina de la Cruz.
His great-great grandmother was Ernestina de la Cruz.
His great-great grandmother was Ernestina de la Cruz!
A theory ran through his mind - what if the real reason his great-great grandmother left was because she wanted to live out her dream and seize her moment, and so she did?
Miguel let out a joyful laugh. His idol turned out to be his great-great grandmother… music was in his blood. It was his destiny!
He raced onto the edge of the roof, overlooking the courtyard. The photo was in one hand, while the guitar was in the other. “Papá, Mamá! Sé quién es mi tatarabuela!”
“Miguel, get down from there!” Luisa called out in worry, not noticing the instrument in her son’s hands. “You might fall and hurt yourself!”
“Mamá Coco’s mother was Ernestina de la Cruz!”
“Who in the world is this Ernestina de la Cruz?” Enrique asked, confused by his son’s words.
Miguel threw off his leather apron, letting it fall to the ground as he struck a pose with his guitar. “ Voy a ser músico !”
All of Miguel’s music albums, video tapes and even his guitar were cast at his feet, while his whole family encircled him.
“What is all of this basura ?” Elena demanded. “You hide things from your own family?”
“It’s not rubbish!” Miguel exclaimed in defense of his items. “It’s–”
“All that time he’s spent in the plaza!” Berto grumbled, interrupting his nephew.
“It filled his head with crazy fantasies !” Gloria shrieked, making insane gestures with his hands.
“It’s not a fantasy!” Miguel defended himself. He handed his father the photo, pointing to the skull guitar. “This woman is Ernestina de la Cruz, the most magnificent musician of all time. Don’t you realize what this means for us?”
“We barely know anything about this woman,” Enrique said as he looked at the photo, then pointed it at his son. “But whoever she was, she abandoned her husband and daughter in their time of need – her own family. This no future for you.”
“But Papá, you said my family would guide me!” Miguel reminded him. “Well, Ernestina de la Cruz is my family! The blood of a musician runs through my veins – it’s what I’m meant to be!”
“ Nunca! That puta’s music was a curse!” Elena yelled. “I will not allow any of it!”
“If you would just let me–”
“ Miguel, ” Luisa said warningly.
“Enough of this! You will listen to your family,” Enrique said sternly. “ No more music. ”
“Tío Enrique, Tía Luisa, Abuelita,” Rosa tried to step in and speak up for her cousin. “Maybe we should listen to what Miguel has to–”
“ Quiet !” Elena shushed her, then turned back to Miguel.
“Just listen to me play,” Miguel begged, picking up the guitar. “You might–”
“ End of discussion, ” his father cut him off.
Miguel was about to play his guitar when his grandmother snatched it away. "Do you want to end up like that woman?" she asked him, pointing to the torn part of the photo. "Forgotten by your family and left off their ofrenda?!"
"No me importa si estoy en alguna estúpida ofrenda!" Miguel yelled.
Gasps came from the family, some looking on in worry as Elena looked tense. She glanced at her grandson, then at the guitar in her hands. She lifted it into the air.
Ignoring the cries of her grandson, granddaughter and son, Elena smashed the guitar against the hard earth of the ground, breaking it into small bits and pieces of wood. “No hay guitarra, no hay más música,” she muttered, making a cross gesture.
Miguel’s eyes grew wet with tears, anger and despair at the injustice of everything bubbling inside of his chest. He felt like a volcano filled with lava, ready to erupt at any second.
Elena softened, cupping the boy’s cheek with her hand. “Come, mijo… you’ll feel better after having dinner with your family.”
“ No !” Miguel pushed her hand away, taking a few steps back. “I don’t want to be in this family, not when no one here cares about me! You all only care about looking out for yourselves!”
“Miguel–” Rosa started, trying to approach her cousin.
Miguel spun around to face his cousin, sneering at her. “ Especially you, Rosa !” He then snatched the photo away from his father, rushing out of the courtyard.
“ Miguel !” his father and cousin called out after him.
Miguel ignored their calls as he went straight for the plaza. When he got there, he went to the stage, where a woman stood with a clipboard in her hand. “Quiero jugar en la plaza, como hizo la Señora De la Cruz! Todavía puedo registrarme?”
“Got an instrument?”
“No…” The sight of his grandmother snatching his guitar away and smashing it flashed through his head. “But I could always borrow a guitar?”
“Sorry, kid, but musicians must bring their own instruments,” the stage manager replied, giving him a sympathetic smile. “Get yourself a guitar, kid. I’ll put you on the list.”
Moments later, Miguel approached every musician he could find, but all of them refused to let him use their guitar. Some of their refusals were kind, while others were as hostile as a rabid coyote.
Distraught and disheartened, Miguel found himself walking towards the statue of Ernestina de la Cruz. Tears began to build up in his eyes again as he looked up at the statue. “Oh, tatarabuela… what should I do?”
As to be expected, he received no direct answer. His gaze fell upon a plaque at the base of the statue that read Seize your moment, and do not let it go!
He looked at the photo in his hands, then at the skull head guitar, just as fireworks illuminated the skull head guitar that the statue held.
Soon, he got an idea.
Was it a reckless idea, breaking into his idol's crypt? Yes, but it was his only way of getting a guitar.
Miguel climbed onto the coffin, moving the lid a bit, only to stifle a gasp. He crawled over the marble tomb, facing the famous guitar. He wiped away some dust, revealing rich painted wood so shiny that he could see his own reflection.
"Señora de la Cruz," he began, looking up at her portrait, "please don't be angry with me. I'm Miguel, your daughter's bisnieto, your tataranieto. I really need to use your guitar." He took the guitar in his hands, not noticing how the marigold petals in the mausoleum began to glimmer. “Our family thinks music is a bad thing. They don't understand how good it can be, nor do they want to. But you would've understood - I know you would've! Like you said, I shouldn't let my moment go – I have to seize it!” He backed away from the painting. “So if it’s fine with you, I’m going to play in the plaza like you did, all those years ago!”
With deep confidence, he strummed the guitar, causing marigold petals to swirl around him.
Not too long after, a light shined through the window.
“It’s gone! Somebody stole Ernestina de la Cruz’s guitar!”
“Look, the window’s broken, too!”
Miguel whirled around just as he heard keys jangling, followed by the door being unlocked. A guard stepped in with a flashlight.
“Show yourself, ladrón!”
“I – I’m sorry!” Miguel put the guitar down, then held his hands up. “It isn’t what it looks like! De la Cruz is–”
The guard walked straight through the boy, not even noticing him. The twelve year-old panicked and ran out of the mausoleum.
“Miguel!” his parents voices called out. “Come home!”
“Miguel, please come out!” Rosa’s voice followed soon after.
Miguel sprinted towards his parents and cousin, only to go straight through them.
He shuddered and fell to the ground. He looked at his hands. “Wh– what’s happening to me ?”
Suddenly, Dante surprised him with a lick on the cheek.
“ Dante ?!” Miguel began to breathe in and out. “You can see me?”
Dante barked, pointed and bounded through a crowd of– wait, were those skeletons?
Miguel shook his head, giving chase through until he ran right into a mustached skeleton and fell to the ground again. The skeleton’s bones fell apart, scattering across the ground. The head moved up.
“I’m so sorry,” the boy apologized quickly, attempting to gather and rearrange the bones.
“ Miguel ?!” the skeleton’s head cried out.
“ Miguel ?” a skeleton woman and man gasped as they turned to see the boy. The woman was in her mid-sixties and wore a pink dress with roses tucked into her hair, while the man was in his early forties and wore blue shirt, yellow pants and glasses with his hair tied into a ponytail along with a goatee.
The bones magically pulled away from Miguel, rearranging themselves back together. “Estás aquí! AQUÍ aquí!” the mustached skeleton cried out. “ Y nos puedes ver ?”
Miguel tilted his head a bit as he looked at the man, until the photo of his great-grandfather flashed through his mind. “Papá Julio?”
He looked at the woman in pink. “Tía… Rosita?”
She beamed at him, waving her hand. “Sí!”
Finally, he looked at the younger man, who was straightening Julio’s head. “Tío Víctor?”
Víctor looked at his great-nephew, then stepped forward and took his face into his hands, feeling the boy’s chin. “He’s not dead,” he concluded, removing his hands from his nephew’s face. “If he were, then his face would be completely skeletal along with the rest of his body.”
“He’s not quite alive, though,” Rosita observed as a living person ambled through Miguel’s non-corporeal form.
Suddenly, twin skeletons ran towards the family, huffing out of exhaustion.
“Oye!” Felipe huffed out.
“It’s Papá Héctor–” Óscar began, although he was winded.
“–he couldn’t cross over the bridge!” his brother finished his sentence.
“–back in the Land of the Dead!”
The twins’ images flashed in Miguel’s memory. “Tío Felipe? Tío Óscar?”
“Hola, Miguel,” they greeted him, before their eyes went wide and they gasped in shock.
Víctor glanced at his uncles, then at Miguel. “I’m guessing you’re responsible for this,” he sighed wearily, his eyes narrowing.
“But if he can’t come to us–”
“–then we are going to him!” Julio interrupted, grabbing Miguel’s arm.
The family rushed to the edge of the cemetery, followed by Dante. They weaved through graves, rounding a corner until they finally came to a marigold bridge, glowing brighter than a lightbulb.
Miguel pulled his arm away from Julio’s hold, nervously taking a few steps back.
“It’s alright, Miguel,” Julio reassured him. “Come on.”
The boy began to follow after his family, the bridge's petals glowing beneath his feet with each step he took.
Once again, Dante took off, and Miguel ran ahead of his family to catch up with the dog. "Dante!" He finally caught up to the dog, who was frolicking and rolling around in tge petals as though they were autumn leaves. "You gotta stop running off like that, boy. We don't know anything about this– woah…"
The sparkling landscape of the realm's city emerged from the mist, leaving the boy in awe of how breathtaking, to the point where he didn't even notice his family catching up to him.
"So it's all real, then," he murmured. "You're all really out there…"
"Did you actually think that after someone dies, they just disappear?" Víctor asked his nephew.
"Well, I dunno... maybe?" Miguel shrugged as he stood up, walking alongside his family. "I thought it was all made up – a story adults tell kids in order to keep them entertained, like the chupacabra."
Víctor rolled his eyes at his nephew's naive nature. Honestly, the child was twelve, and yet he still thought the chupacabra was just an old tale? "Miguel, the chupacabra is a real thing," he said bluntly. "What other creature can puncture a goat's neck with its teeth, and suck all of that blood?"
“Well, now I’m thinking you might be right.”
As skeletons passed by in the other direction, Miguel received some strange looks as though he were a clown. A little skeleton girl gasped and pointed at him.
“Mija, it’s not nice to stare at–” her mother started, only to go wide-eyed upon seeing Miguel. “ Ay, Santa María! ” She quickly began to walk away, dragging her daughter with her.
Miguel put up his hood, feeling a little bad because not only was it depressing to see a dead child, but also because it was a sign that more reactions of fear were sure to come during his time here.
The Riveras continued on toward the arrivals area of the Marigold Grand Central Station on the far side of the bridge. Miguel saw a bunch of neon-colored creatures flying above, crawling and making nests in the rooftops of buildings nearby.
“Are those–?” Miguel stopped, squinting his eyes to make sure he was right. “ Alebrijes! But aren’t those just sculptures?”
“Back in Santa Cecilia, yes,” Óscar answered. “But here, these alebrijes are real spirit creatures.”
“They guide their master’s soul on their journey,” Rosita explained.
“Be careful though,” Felipe warned. “Some are very hostile when provoked, especially Héctor’s alebrije.”
“It’s best you don’t run into Pepita, lest you should have a heart attack,” Víctor added.
They got to the far edge of the bridge, entering a line for re-entry.
“Welcome back!” an agent greeted a traveler. “Anything to declare?”
“Some churros from my family,” the traveler replied.
“How wonderful! Next!”
In the line nearby, skeletons exited the Land of the Dead through a gate marked Departures. Miguel watched.
“Next family, please!” a departures agent called out.
An elderly couple stepped in front of a camera-mounted monitor. The monitor scanned their faces, returning an image of their photos on an altar in the Land of the Living.
“Oh, your photos are on your son’s ofrenda,” the departures agent told them. “Have a great visit!”
“Gracias,” the couple thanked her.
The couple united with the rest of their family. They all stepped onto the bridge, which began to glow as they gained footing.
A woman of age twenty-two stepped up to the monitor dressed as Agustín Lara, complete with a wig and a cigar in her hand. “Soy yo, Agustín Lara, ” she declared, trying to make her voice sound deeper. “Forget the scanner. I have photos on the ofrendas of so many composers out there – it’ll just drown your devil box with images.”
The monitor scanned her, but she received a negative buzzing sound in response.
“Oh, shoot,” the departures agent said as she looked at the scanner. “Looks like no one put up your photo, Agustín. ”
The woman took off her wig, revealing ebony hair tied in a lower braided bun with purple ribbons. She then threw off the suit, which in turn revealed a slightly shabby dark green dress and a lighter green poncho around her neck. She wore Mary Janes on her feet, and one of her legs appeared to be wrapped in a bandage.
“Perhaps I lied a little when I said I was Agustín,” the woman began. “And I understand that lying is bad. However, I can’t bring myself to apologize, since you won’t let me cross the bridge all because of that devil box !”
“No photo on the ofrenda, no crossing the bridge,” the departures agent said simply.
“ Mamabicho, ” the poncho woman growled. Then, she raced towards the bridge, pushing past the security guard who was blocking it. “ JAJA! ” she laughed triumphantly, looking back at the guards who had begun to give chase. “So long, putos !” She looked forward, reaching the bridge at a sprint–
–only to sink right into the petals, as no magic engaged.
“No, no – I’m so close! Come on, devil flowers! Work –”
The guards strolled to the bridge and picked her up by the arms, dragging her back.
“ Honestly, what did I expect?” the poncho woman grumbled to herself. “ Curse that damned devil box! ”
Miguel watched as the guards pulled her away, feeling a little sympathetic. He wasn’t able to dwell on it any further though as Rosita grabbed his arm, telling him it was their turn.
“Bienvenidos de nuevo, amigos!” the arrivals agent greeted the Riveras as they stepped up to his booth. “Alguna declaración a realizar?”
“De hecho… sí,” Julio answered slowly, stepping to the side as Víctor and the twins pushed Miguel forward, showing off the boy’s living features, which contrasted against everyone else’s skeletal appearances.
The agent’s jaw dropped onto the counter in shock.
“All I wanted was to spend some time with mi papá and mi tía,” Víctor rambled as he and his family were escorted across an arching second floor walkway. “That’s all I wished for. Nothing big or fancy, just some quality family time.” Then, he gestured to Miguel. “But no, we had to get stuck playing 'babysitter' for mi sobrino!”
“Calm down, Teto,” Rosita tried to soothe her nephew. “It’s okay.”
“ ‘Teto?’ ” Miguel couldn’t help but snicker at the nickname, but stopped as soon as his uncle shot him a glare.
Meanwhile, Óscar seemed to be staring at Miguel’s face in deep contemplation. “Oh, what I’d give to have a nose again and to smell things naturally,” he sighed.
The family passed through doors inscribed with Department of Family Reunions. Inside the department, case workers were helping travelers sort out their messes – however, one traveler in particular stood out to the Riveras.
“Tell me, who is the manager of this place?” a seventy year-old man demanded. He wore a dark purple shirt with red pants, and a brown apron was wrapped around the area where his belt would be. His hair was dark brown, with a single white streak in it. “I must speak to him!”
“I’m sorry, señor,” the case worker apologized, wincing at the harsh tone of his voice. “But no one put up your photo–”
“Mi familia loves me, ” the man said in a low voice. “There’s never, ever been a time where they’ve taken it off.” He coldly eyed the Macintosh 128k on the worker’s desk. “That useless blinky-thingy is clearly glitching out!”
“Um, Papá Héctor?” Julio spoke up, approaching his father-in-law from behind.
Héctor turned, his gaze softening as he saw his family. “Mi familia! Thank goodness you’re here! The blinky-thingy keeps saying my photo isn’t up, but you know that in all of the forty-six years I’ve been dead, my photo has always been on the ofrenda.” He pointed to the worker. “Please tell this woman that her blinky-thingy has got everything mixed up!”
“About that…” Julio chuckled nervously. “We… weren’t able to get to the ofrenda.”
“Papá’s right, Abuelito,” Víctor chimed in. “We got a little sidetracked along the way, and ran into a certain someone.”
The group moved aside, revealing Miguel standing there.
“ Miguel? ” Héctor gasped upon seeing his great-great grandson.
Miguel almost immediately recognized the man, his photo flashing in his mind. He didn’t know whether to be weirded out by the fact that Papá Héctor and Tío Víctor looked so similar to one another to the point where they were almost like twins, or to be terrified that he was facing his great-great grandfather – the former family patriarch, who had started up the business after enforcing the music ban a century ago. “P-P- Papá Héctor…”
“ What is going on here? ”
Just then, a door nearby opened and a clerk stepped out. “Eres la familia Rivera?”