6. Day of the Dead in Mexico

About this episode:

Amy Conroy and her family spent a collective year in San Miquel de Allende, Mexico to learn the language, but she left with an entirely new perspective on death by participating in Day of the Dead.

Follow her adventures on Instagram at @amysmundo. 

Amy’s company Habla Blah Blah teaches kids new languages through music. Learn more at hablablahblah.com.

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For more information on Wander By Proxy, read a transcription of this interview, or contact Leah Falyn, visit the website at wanderbyproxy.com.

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Leah: Welcome to Wander By Proxy, a podcast featuring women’s travel stories that connect women more to themselves and the world around them. Amy Conroy, her husband, and her one-year-old, her three-year-old and her five-year-old, moved to Mexico where her kids learned a new culture and language, and Amy developed a new perspective on death and its relation to life. Here’s Amy.

Amy Conroy: Around 10 years ago when my oldest was in kindergarten, our family made the decision to move to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which turned out to be the best decision of our parenting. So we ended up living in San Miguel de Allende for a collective year. People often ask me what a collective year mean. We did it in increments. So we did it and sort of five months at one time, and then we’d come home for six months and then we’d go back for six months.

And we did that back and forth. But my children ended up spending a school year immersed in the local schools there, and it was awesome. It seems like an unusual decision, I think, to almost everybody that we hung out with in Los Angeles.

But most of the people that we hung out with in Los Angeles didn’t really know that I have previously been a central American archeologist, so I felt really comfortable in Mexico at the time. My husband was traveling a lot for production purposes, documentaries, and TV work, and we really wanted our children to learn Spanish and we really preferred if they could learn Spanish.

Within the cultural setting of a native speaking location, and we hadn’t really planned on it, but after we were invited through visit San Miguel. We went there, we met people in the community. We were invited to have, you know, four-year-old birthday party. We didn’t know anybody, but everybody was so generous and warm and inviting that we just kind of fell in love with the place.

It was like, why not? Like when or when went out. So we do this. They’re so young, they’re super adaptable. They can pick up the language really quickly, and I would personally love it. I would get to feel like I was doing anthropological field work or something. So it was a real, I don’t know, it was a real bonus.It was an unusual set of circumstances that led us there and since that time, I’ve really, you know, looked back at the patterns that we followed and, and codified our experience a little bit more to make a greater understanding of it all. But truthfully, when we first went down there, it was half wim, half gut, half adventure and excitement.

Leah: That sounds so fun. So what does your kids think of it and what did they bring with them after all of that?

Amy Conroy:  they loved it. I mean, they loved it because it was so much fun. Every time we went, it was a great experience to eat. We had friends in both places so we all, we all looked forward to it.

But the second time when we went down there for a period of six months, my husband did have my daughter display everything on the floor that she was bringing with her. And this hilarious picture of. Dolls and books and a blanket, just really random things, like anything, you know, of five-year-old thinks that they have to have with them for six months.

When we came back, when it’s all said and done, I mean, we brought back a dog. I would say that was one of our favorite. So we’ve brought back our beloved dog. We’ve brought back this deep love for Mexican culture, and they’re all pretty near fluent.

So I’d say they’re conversationally fluent and we just, you know, we’d generally look forward to the next time when we’ll visit that city.

Leah:  That’s amazing, and I’m glad. I like how your main souvenir is just like another member of your family, a dog. And so when did your experience with Day of the Dead come into the picture?

Amy Conroy: So when we started living there for a month on end and my children right school, I wanted to become more involved in the community. The first place that we had met anybody that became our friend was at the local park.

And over the years of going there for small periods of time, the park has become quite dilapidated from our first visit. And there was a group of moms I’d met that wanted to refurbish the park for the public. Community, and so I, I will, you know, I’ll help. I would love to help. Which was the greatest gift for me because I ended up becoming even more immersed in the community and working with other local moms.

When we were able to accomplish that task efficiently, we raised money, we obtained grants and it was really exciting. But we all sort of transitioned into the next community volunteer project, which was, they were conspiring for the very first Lakalaka Festival, and it sounded very intriguing to me.

I had no idea really what Day of the Dead did was, but I started going to the meetings. I mean, partly, let’s be honest, because it was super fun. The people there were very interesting. It is a community of people who think outside of the box, and I was really inspired and was very engaged in the conversation because it was so stimulating to me.

It was such a new way of thinking, and I remember coming back and telling family like, Oh, I’m going to help out with this festival. And they were like, we just don’t get what Day of the Dead is. And I would try to explain it and in trying to explain it so many times, I think helps me to really digest it and process what Day of the Dead meant.

And how lucky for me that I got to do that in that space because I would never have expected that. Only say five years later, my very own brother would end up dying at a really young age, and I always, I look back now and I just think how lucky I was to already have been introduced to a different cultural context to handle and embrace the desk as my super close brother.

So, you know, I went to San Miguel looking for language and I came out with this like total different cultural perspective on death amongst other things.

Leah: Absolutely. What aspects of the culture helped you?

Amy Conroy: You know, I mean, I still grapple a lot with it, but I’ve had a lot of conversations in various mentors that I had or friendships that I had did I have down there, and I think. I think that the biggest thing that I learned personally is that I somehow grew up in a culture of really planning for the future.

You know, making sure that I had a mortgage I could pay for and that we had retirement set up and it was important to save for college. All of those things were really great, but in the process of being so concerned about the teacher, sometimes I lost the ability to be spontaneous and really appreciate the present.

And I think that when, when somebody dies then, and you have no future to spend with them, all you have is the present. So while my brother was sick, I could really cast aside. All of my concerns for the future and appreciate the moments that I had with him while he was sick. And then when he died, it didn’t make it any easier because I had this other cultural understanding.

I mean, I still grieve and it’s still really hard, but I don’t, but it’s not taboo to talk about him. I remembered all of the things that made me laugh about him or the things that I thought could’ve been better. And I think that that is what I love it that day of the guide is that it sort of pokes fun at all the things we hold so near and dear in our, in our present day, you know, whether it be the mortgage or really fine clothing or, whatever your daily concern because everybody dies and yet I never know how to explain. It’s an acceptance of death. We will all die, yet we can still appreciate the spirit of our loved one and celebrate that they’re still there with us.

And I do that, and really random ways and occasion, but I appreciate that it gave me some sort of a framework to put it in and, and then the day of the dead itself or the weekend of it, the couple of days is really just an opportunity to embrace that.

So last year, for instance, and having these like really profound and deep thoughts about loss and grief and how to move forward.

My daughter ended up saying to me, you know, I’d really like to learn French, and then we had a friend that said, well, why don’t you come to school with us in Paris? And I think under normal circumstances, I would have been like, that’s outrageous. That’s something that other people do, like the one percenters or something.

But instead, because I felt like, well, I have no time to waste. I was like, what do I have to lose? Okay, we’ll move to Paris for three months. You can learn French. And so we did this really outrageous sounding second language immersion trip that was so incredible and so amazing for our entire family again, and I never would have done that had I not been in that place of like, I have nothing to lose.

I better live my best. Right now.

 Leah:  I love that. It’s like it evoked just fearlessness in you, and yet, and it’s so unexpected that you got that from the opposite of life.

Amy Conroy: Yes, it is. It’s super weird. And, I know when we were, when we were in Paris last year, people would say to me, well, what made you decide to do this? Was kind of like, do you want my short story or my long story? Because it sounds really. Ridiculous. You know, the short story is, well, my daughter wanted to learn French, but the bigger long story of course, is that, we, we’ve long love language.

We have had been forced into the perspective of losing somebody so close that you can hardly bear it. And having to face that, you’re really challenged with how you want to move forward, how you want to live, and what will you do with your time left here and what will you do? How do you, how do you want your kids to live moving forward?

 So it was a crazy gift. I mean, trust me, I would give it back to get my brother back and heartbeat, but if I had to go through that, which apparently was inevitable to the medicine or the lack of the lack of modern medicine to cure cancer, then I’m glad I’m going to take something extraordinary away from it.

Your questions were super great and helped me to remember this one really great moment. And it sort of links back to something else you said about like, what did your kids think when you first started doing this? So, I think one of our first lungs in my daughter was still in preschool, and my, I don’t know exactly what ages they were there. Somewhere around like, two, four, and six years old. And they were, they’re pretty adaptable at that age. It was the trip this day was going well, but I think they were a little confused too. Like why so long mom needs this isn’t really a vacation if we’re going to school, you know, what’s going on.

But it happened to be right before Easter, so we’d been there about a month or so. And my parents were coming down for Easter. So we’re really looking forward to that. So you’re kind of at the crossroads of like, it’s too long for a vacation. It’s getting kind of hard. I’m starting to miss home, especially if I know grandparents are coming.

And we met our friends in the Jardin, which is the common meeting place in Miguel. And we were playing in the Jardin as you do, you know, maybe you get a – or an ice cream, and they have these -, these giant – balloons that the kids play with and pop up and down and everybody’s playing together.

And I, I turned to my girlfriend because I started to smell something really sweet. And I kept thinking that it was somebody walking by me with a lot of perfume or something. I was like, what is that smell? And we couldn’t figure it out. And as the sun set, we, we started to walk home altogether and then we realized that there was a big line of people coming out of this one home on one of the main streets leading out of the Jardin. And as we got close closer, it became clear to me what the smell was. And it was so amazing. They lined the streets and the entry way into this home with men to stocks, and so they invited people into the central courtyard of this home. And as anybody. Walked on the mint stocks, it released the smell of new and the other herbs that relayed on the floor, and they had invited everyone in to see their altar.

And so you made sort of a, you I’ve used shape learning in and out of their courtyard. And as you left fair home, they offered you a polite, as a symbol of this sweet tears. But the altars that were made around the city, and this one in particular was absolutely magical because it made the whole entire city Mel of flowers and herbs.

I’m like a perfume in the air. I mean, intoxicating entirely. And I remember my oldest coming up to me with his Popsicle and he was like, now, now I get it, mommy. Now I know why you made us come here. So maybe there was a little bit of pushback, but, but then he really loved it.

It’s a Friday night before Palm Sunday. The Virginia delights are, our lady of sorrows is celebrated decorating all the fountains in town and making home altered.

 It was, I don’t know, it was such a surprise to us that it was this like gift on a Friday evening that was entirely unexpected and, and super magical.

 Leah: Thank you so much for listening to Wander By Proxy. Amy Conroy leads a company that introduces languages to students through music. A link to its website is in the show notes.

If you’re listening to this in real time and you’re social distancing, I hope this satisfied your travel bug a little bit for more on wonder by proxy and to get more travel pictures from Amy. Visit Wander By Proxy podcast on any of your social channels.


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