Amelia Díaz Ettinger


El Velorio/ The Wake


Born in Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico, Amelia Díaz Ettinger has written poems that reflect the struggle with identity often found in immigrants. She began writing poetry at age three, dictating poems out loud to the adults in her life who wrote them down for her. Amelia continued writing poems and short stores throughout her life, while working as a high school science teacher. In 2015, her first book of poetry, Speaking at a Time, was published by Redbat books. This bilingual book of poetry has been well received. Oregon poet laureate, Peter Sears, said, “… These recollections pulse with energy, and they echo the poetry of Lorca and Neruda,” Her poems and short stories have appeared in Willawaw Journal, Windfall Journal, The Avocet, Speaking of Ourselves: Women of Color Anthology, and Oregon East Magazine.


Doña Eloisa Martínez de Fernández, Doña Elo, was possibly the most admired and respected individual in my town. She was not the commanding, or frightening figure of my Aunt Isadora, but like her, she basked in the glory of power and respect.

Doña Elo lived with her beloved husband Don Luis Rafael Fernandez, in a small stucco house with red tiles on the roof, fashioned like a miniature rich person Spanish house, but hers allowed for privacy. In fact, hers was just about the opposite in this respect. It had short well-pruned flowerbeds all around, which left the house naked to the sidewalk and consequently received the full force of the sun in the early morning, which made it a little too hot, but it, did not matter. The flower garden was a sight to see. Azaleas of every shade and color mingled with orange, “culos de poeta”, and amapolas, and canarios and all of it gave the outside a deceiving look of unorganized madness, when we all knew well it was the most highly organized dwelling anywhere.

Doña Elo was without repute, the model homemaker, and she did it all without hired help. She did not need a girl, or a gardener, she said, and loved tending her gardens, her sewing, and her house all by herself. She thrived on it, in fact, and I never saw her idle or tired ever. The only time she had help was when I showed myself, much uninvited, during spring, to help her with the washing. Every spring she rearranged the pantry which was stocked full of homemade preserves from the fruits of her well-pruned fruit trees, (she was the only person I knew that knew how to can foods or had a full vegetable garden in her house). And washed the lids of the jars and adjusted the labels. This done she proceeded to wash the walls of her house, including the walls in the garage, with a self-made mixture of ammonia, Pine-Sol, and a thing called bluing, until they were so white the walls sparkled. Strangely enough, even before the walls had time to dry she proceeded to whitewash them dressed in a pair of American blue trousers. “Paint always adheres better to the surface if it is clean”, she said, when I questioned her why to clean them first if she was to paint over them. 

To be fair, all of her notoriety was not solely derived from her being the best cook, housekeeper, seamstress, and gardener, which, of course, were tremendous accomplishments on their own, though paradoxically they added an extra burden for her, since everyone was always seeking for her advice on one thing or another, (like when the Señorita Oliveros’s, (who years later was called La Loca), mother packed her in Doña Elo’s house for two weeks so that the girl could get a first class crash-course in husbandry and housework before her impending wedding); there were other just as important talents to contend with. Doña Elo also had an incredible reputation as the most sensible and clear thinking creature in our town. She always seemed to keep a clear cool head set squarely on her broad shoulders in time of crises and had saved the town on more than one occasion. Like the time when Doctor Atisviano, age forty, fled the town with a colegiala of fifteen in his arms, leaving behind his patients Doña Ailen who went into labor with twins at the news of the escape, and Don Gregorio’s young son, Jaime, who got that afternoon his hand caught in the sugar cane processing tumbler. The town left to its own medical defenses was rescued by Doña Elo’s clear, frigorific thinking, taking care of the situation so efficiently, no one noticed how much she sweated and struggled to save the twins and the battered hand. But in passing years they were reminded by the lively presence of the healthy fat twins, (who grew to be terrifying giants later in life), and by Jaime’s capable, minus two fingers, hand.

There was also the time when she acted as mayor, when Don Luis Eustaquio de Vivar, God keep him safe, passed away before his term was up, and no one else seem to want the responsibility of running the town. Doña Elo stepped in the dead man’s shoes, so to speak figuratively but also quite literarily since Don Luis left his very comfortable shoes in his office and Doña Elo the consummate environmentalist did not let a good thing go unwanted, repossessed the shoes at least when she was in the mayor’s office.  She did this most humbly and quietly and before anyone had an inkling of what was going on she had the town running better than clockwork, and for the first time in the history of the town, cheques were mailed, petitions read, a new clock for city hall bought and installed, potholes fixed, and a new flower bed in the shape of a giant compass installed in the Plaza. All of these problems resolved with the minimum amount of expense or paperwork.

So when Doña Elo eloquently but succinctly announced her death, after waking that morning with a parched throat and a vision on the wall, no one questioned or disagreed with her. She had opened her eyes at the usual time of four thirty in the morning to see her obituary on the wall by the side of her bed. Just as clear as if someone had taken the Monday paper and glued the page on the wall. In fact, she had reached and tried to peep that paper on the wall when she realized with clarity that a vision couldn’t be disturbed or peeled.  A little shaken and saddened by the vision, as would be reasonable since who wants to die before their time, she got up and got dressed as was customary for her in one of her floral dresses reserved for house cleaning. “When I die I don’t want the church or the coffin adorned with florist flowers, the ones in my garden will do,” she said to no one in particular but since it was spring and I was there, I was the recipient of this mandate. Then noticing my presence she assured me that she wanted this not for miser reasons but for very practical ones. “My flowers are from this very soil here, they are not some cockamamie import from China or who knows where. I know each one by name and they know me.”

The rest of the morning she did her usual chores but interrupted herself to make one or another flower arrangement for her impending death also some collations including some delicious finger rolls that kept me munching as we worked around her house. So that before noon the grim news spread around the town and back. People started to arrive and bring plates of food, which they discreetly left with me. When we sat at the kitchen counter, to have lunch, she looked surprisingly healthy and normal to me, but I said nothing, and shared with her a portion of the stewed cabbage with ñames, and chicken fricassee. She told me then about the vision. “Child,” she said, “what was most puzzling was the size of the obituary: not a ¼ or a on the page, no, but almost a ¾ of the page. Have you ever heard of such nonsense? They better not do that! I want a sensible but respectable announcement, an appropriate one for a member of my family.” I wondered what size would that be but didn’t ask either and kept munching on the delicious ñames, my favorite tuber. 

At that moment her eyes narrowed into slits behind her thick glasses. The glasses always made her eyes looked startled and a bit deranged enlarging them as much as they did but at that moment with her eyes almost closed it had the opposite effect, they looked focused and sharp. “¿Qué pasa?” I asked, and she responded that there had been other obituaries in her ethereal newspaper, but the surprise of seeing her own she had been so great she had not taken the sensible precaution to read those as well. “What an unforgivable oversight,” was all she said. Grave sin I thought.

Quietly and uncharacteristically we gathered our coffee cups and soup bowls, (she was the only adult that gave me coffee), into the sink and went to sat on the back porch, that overlooked part of her backyard, garden and garage, but mostly the old Flamboyan tree that was violently in bloom and cooling us from the warmest rays of the day.

“I am going to have an old fashioned v-e-l-o-r-i-o,” she said with an air of inspiration.

“¡Un velorio! I yelled excited and happy at the prospect until I realized that those were the wrong sentiments to have seating next to the future deceased, but Doña Elo looked as happy and excited as I felt. 

“Sí un velorio. Like in the old days with all the doors to this house open, with lots of food, and rum, and music, and the mirrors covered in cloth. What do you think about that!”

Of course, I had never seen a velorio personally since they had lost favor in the more modern world I was growing in. All I knew about them came from a painting I had seen in Old San Juan, El Velorio by Francisco Oller, the teacher who took us to see the museum had said it was. It was the highlight of the field trip for me, a huge oil painting that mesmerized me for the longest time with the child’s corpse on the table and people with no shoes laughing, eating, taking, drinking, and playing musical instruments. At first it seems like a country fiesta until you notice the grayed face of the child on the tablecloth.

“I am not going to wait till I am dead,” we are going to have this velorio while I can still enjoy it.” With that we went back in, me to wash the dishes we left in the sink, and Doña Elo to her dining room table to make the arrangements for the biggest and finest velorio the town had seen in a hundred years.



The skeptical kept their composure and their mouth shut out of respect. Even my outspoken Tio Isadora, who sat filling the piano-bench with her corpuscular rear, when hearing about the velorio never gave way about how she felt, she said nothing. The only hint she gave about her inner workings of her mind was by merely raising her eyebrows and puckering her lips so tightly that the lines around her mouth were illuminated by the lack of blood.

The town got busy with everyone making plans in earnest, and I became frenzied and tired between errands, (being the only girl in town with a bicycle was not always such a good thing). At home my mother and Aunt Isadora contributed their share to the velorio. Tia Isadora baked a dozen Bizcochos Borrachos, but she put so much rum into those cakes, the children, including me, were not permitted to even take a small sample. Mamá contributed by supplying the velorio with her stock of over thirty fine hand embroidered linens, most of which were embroidered and crocheted by great-great grandmother Lorenza who never touched Caribbean soil in her life and was buried by herself alone in a forgotten town of Spain near La Mancha. Mamá carefully hand washed each piece, hung it out to dry, ironed it with a banana leaf for starch, and folded them just so to bring the best of the pattern out. “The beauty of each piece gets lost by clumsy hands,” she had said to me in many occasions and I always had the feeling she was hinting at a different meaning but the educational messages behind those words never reach my prepubescent ears.

Everything was as it should have been, on time, almost as if Doña Elo herself had orchestrated the whole production. Everyone marveled at their own efficiency and promptness and knew they had Doña Elo to thank for that. Given that in more than one occasion she had shown each person how to get organized and going even if it was against their nature to do so. Everyone was on time except myself. I was exhausted with all the errands on my bicycle and my muscles were sore. I fell asleep in the middle of the late afternoon and when I woke my house was empty and everyone was already at Doña Elo’s house.

When I arrived the feeling of death took me by surprise. Just like it had done a few years back when I was asked to enter the room of my moribund and very old Uncle Eustaquio, God keep him safe, -the air had that same smell of decay, flowers, and old food. People were overflowing the small stucco house. The men stood outside carefully sidestepping the flowerbeds, with a drink of rum and ice in their hands. I recognized the elegant glasses as those belonging to Sra. Gallego’s house. Some men also smoked cigars, which probably came from the tobacco kiosk of Serafin Montero, and talked in obscured, guarded voices. The women were mainly inside the house. Some sitting in the scattering of furniture that was Doña Elo’s but most were sitting in chairs and sofas from their own houses. The standing women were younger, and they were busy cutting cakes and meats and serving the older sitting ones, (my mother was one of the one’s standing, while my Aunt Isadora was one of the one’s sitting, she occupied two chairs).

I looked around to see Doña Elo’s corpse but was surprised to see her sitting next to the dining table. She wore heavy makeup on her face, something I had never seen her do before, at the time I did not know that it is often for corpses to be made up in this fashion. On her head she wore a peineta, those Spanish combs used in folkloric dances or flamenco shows, hers looked to be made of tortoise shell. On top of the peineta she also wore a long and black mantilla that resembled fine Spanish lace though I knew she had made this mantilla herself. “For very special occasions,” she had answered when I imprudently asked her why she was making something that no one ever wore any more. 

She sat still as a statue and for a second I wondered if she was indeed dead and they had propped her on a sitting position. But I could see her shallow breathing and the lights of the candles at the table accentuated her features. She was not wearing her habitual glasses and without them she looked refreshingly younger and for the first time I contemplated her face as it truly was. At that moment I was able to perceive through the detriment of the years to what her youthful face must have been like. I marveled at my own incompetence that through all the years looking into her kind and generous face, I never seen the incredibly beautiful woman she must have been in a physical sense. 

The velorio lasted three days and each day she sat immobile and mute. The peineta and the makeup returned each day the same.  She did not speak, and no one spoke to her either, though people took turns to speak of her at length. Everyone had an anecdote or two to tell. Dr. Francisco Carrasquillo told the story I liked best in that perfect way he had of speaking which some people thought was a bit too highfalutin for their liking but made me want to hear him talk the more. The good doctor told us about how Doña Elo had changed the town’s attitude and preconceptions about young girls fashions by ending the controversy about blue jeans that had consumed the town for a full year. She did it by buying a pair of blue jeans herself and wearing them around the yard while she did her gardening. “Her good sense and good nature saved many young girls for needless groundings, if jeans were good enough for Doña Elo they would be good enough for the flowers of our town.” That was something I did not know, so I was grateful to Doña Elo, jeans were the best thing to wear while doing errands on a bike.

On the third day of the wake after so many eulogies were exhausted, I caught sight of Doña Elo as she stood from her chair unnoticed. I followed her to the hallway where I overheard her say to her beloved husband that she was tired and wanted to close the day. He patted her hand with a tenderness that make me blush. There was a way they looked at each other made me feel ashamed to be there witnessing an intimacy that I knew I was not to be a witness of. Feeling ashamed but not been able to leave and give myself up of the intrusion, I continued watching them as they silently and lovingly left the wake and secluded themselves in Doña Elo’s room. As they closed the door, I felt a fullness of air in my lungs that I can only describe as a relief. If it was her time, then it would be in her husbands arms, that made me feel light and giddy and much less ashamed for being such a snoop.




Next morning the sky was overcast, unusual for that time of the year, and the air smelled of earthworms. I looked out my bedroom window and saw a few feeble drops of rain, thin as a mist, which barely reached the soil. I became certain that Doña Elo had died during the night. The phone rang, and it was for me, and I began to cry softly in my pillow. My mother entered my room to inform me that Doña Elo was the caller, and that she wanted to speak to me, said raising her black eyebrows questioning. Doña Elo wanted me in the gardens at eight o'clock sharp, we were to pick the sweet chilies of her garden and make a sweet chili sauce to can. She said there was a bountiful harvest of a least fifty pounds and that she needed help. We worked in the gardens in the morning harvesting and the afternoon in her kitchen cutting, boiling and pickling with garlic, vinegar, and marjoram. It was exhausting work and my skinny shoulder blades ache with the effort. But what was really astonishing is that we never mentioned the wake or her impending death. 

Doña Eloisa Martínez de Fernández did not die on the third day of her wake as she certainly expected to do, or the fourth, or the fifth. By the six day of her waiting for la Santa Muerte, the Great Reaper, her husband brought her a cup of café con leche to her bed. Acknowledging the gesture without even speaking a word she jumped out of bed and began to rearrange the furniture in her room, clean the closets, prune the fruit trees, pull out weeds, that had crowded the garden for only three days, and made enough food for a week. Life became a familiar ritual again and things went back as they were before, except for the town. 

The wake had had an unexpected consequence in that had brought people together and made them feel competent. With the realization that Doña Elo was not to live forever the citizens realized that this might be it, they needed to rely themselves for fixing unforeseen difficulties and though Doña Elo still was the one that brought forth most of the serious resolutions that baffled the great minds of the citizenry, the mundane was solved in a more personal and individual basis.

When Doña Elo met the Santa Muerte, I was already grown and no longer the errand girl on a bicycle. I had three daughters of my own by then and the middle one was who like to ride the bicycle, but for sport, something unheard of when I was growing up, and the town no longer relied on each other for support. Doña Elo was buried at the Municipal Cemetery with a procession of cars and pedestrians that stretched out for a mile. The flowers of her garden did indeed adorn her gravesite. They were still fresh, fragrant, and vibrant with color when we returned to the sepulcher with her beloved husband’s remains. We deposited his coffin next to hers facing in the same direction, all so very well written and specific in the details she left on all the papers she had arranged just earlier the week of her true death.

As we recited the Hail Mary’s following the beautiful voice of Doña Acevedo, the best rosary reader of our town, I was glad Doña Elo had been too astonished with the size of her own obituary to read the others on that visionary page. Hers had indeed been a ¾ of a page but her husband’s obituary had appeared right under hers on the Friday’s edition of our biweekly paper. Reading his that fateful day, would have brought a sudden and too untimely death.











© The Acentos Review 2018