An Ode to the Skull”


    The human skull is perhaps the most multifaceted and misunderstood symbol in our world today. Although it symbolizes death, decay, and inevitable destruction to many people, I've always considered it a hauntingly beautiful representation of life as we know it.

    Día de los Muertos, otherwise known as Day of the Dead, is always a perennial affair within my household. A sea of marigolds fills the kitchen, the sweet sound of boleros can be heard in the air, and warm corn tamales omit a scent that makes one's stomach rumble with the force of an earthquake.

    Then, there is the altar: a vibrant display of life that includes old photos of those who have gone before. In addition to pan dulce and papel picado, there is always an abundance of skulls - adorned with flower crowns and brilliant colors - surrounding it. To most, this would evoke images of the Addams Family, Halloween, or a funeral, among other solemn staples of popular culture. To me, this memento mori is something much more profound.

    Rather than “remembering that we will die,” the skull begs us to remember how to live. It is a powerful metaphor because it requires us to literally stare death in the face and choose to live with purpose. When my parents put up the altar every November 1st, I am reminded of the importance of living out loud and loving without fear. With every difficult scenario I am made to face, I always think back to the skull.

    Perhaps the most difficult moment in my young life was when I realized that my grandfather no longer knew who I was. The man whose face flooded with sunshine at the mere sight of me was now an empty shell of a person: characterized by a blank stare and an absence of conversation. It pains me to know that there are a treasure trove of stories locked away in his brain that I will never be able to access, as both his voice and his memories were taken from him by Alzheimer’s disease. I cannot even remember what his laugh sounds like.

    When I look at my grandfather, I realize the importance of keeping one’s legacy alive through stories due to the sheer brevity of life. Subconsciously, I think that this is one of the reasons why I am so resolved to become a filmmaker. Simply by exposing people to new concepts through powerful narratives, we can promote a universal sense of understanding, something that is desperately needed within my community.

    There is a negative stigma in Latino households about asking for help. When my grandfather was first diagnosed, my grandmother refused to notify her extended family members out of pure pride. As his condition worsened, she realized that he needed to be placed in an assisted living facility. My grandmother was ashamed; not of my nonverbal grandfather, but of her perceived inability to take care of him by herself. I believe that if those who were suffering in silence were able to see themselves represented on screen, it would change their lives for the better. Every once in a while, people need to be reminded that they are not alone.

    Just as the skull is multifaceted, so, too, is Alzheimer’s. While one’s memory may not be able to persist through old age, their stories can certainly live on through their loved ones. My grandfather’s diagnosis has inspired me to create, sparking ideas for screenplays and short films centered around the topic of memory. Although the disease itself is a dastardly thing, it has given way to something beautiful. Death brings new life, just as the skull reminds us.

    Skulls are nothing to be afraid of. As I've grown older, I've come to realize that death is not the opposite of life. Rather, it is a beautiful part of it. According to my ancestors, people die three deaths: the first is when our bodies cease to function, the second is when our bodies are lowered into the ground, and the third - the most definitive death - is when there is no one left to remember us. Although my grandfather’s memory has perished, it has prompted me to discover my passion and step into the role of storyteller. Ultimately, I intend to make films that the world will never forget.