la alma de mamacita


I’m forever grateful for the quirky folk traditions of my South American heritage. While growing up in California, other kids feared their parents when they misbehaved; I on the other hand feared the wrath of the soul of my deceased maternal ancestor, who had been dead for decades. If I didn’t earn an A on spelling test, “la alma de mamacita,” my great-great-great-grandmother’s soul, would sit close to me––very close––while I studied for next week’s test. If I stayed out past the 10 p.m. curfew on a Saturday night, la alma de mamacita would be my chaperone the following Saturday. Her soul could also be very helpful in an emergency: if I got a flat tire on a dark road, la alma de mamacita was right next to me with the crowbar ready to hit a potential evildoer.

What I didn’t know then was that the anthropological background behind the claim that my ancestor’s soul was always near me was, in all probability, rooted in the practice of mummification in the Andes Mountains. Despite the fact that my family is of Spanish descent, the venerable Inca ways have permeated deep into the culture and psyche of all Andean people. Now, after decades of travel and study, I realize that what my family alluded to as the ever-present soul of our ancestor––la alma de mamacita––referred to the ancient Andean belief in the continuity between the living and the dead. The dead had influence on the actions of the living, and together the living and the dead had an obligation to take care of one another. My late beloved mother used to describe, in poetically morbid detail, the disinterment of her own mother and the gathering of the bones (ossilegium)––after decomposition––for placement in an ossuary, and of the responsibility of the living relatives for polishing the bones of the exhumed relative for their final resting place. “Polishing of the bones” was a macabre fusion between the Roman Catholic practice of exhumation for re-burial in a mausoleum or family crypt in a cathedral, and the Andean belief of paying respect to the ancestral mummies. It was this family event, the gathering of the bones, which provided me with the framework––the skeleton––of this novel.