“Kiss the casket,” my mom instructed, “that way you won’t have ‘susto’.” I was sixteen years old looking at my Grandpa’s body as he lay in his casket. I stared at his chest, and I swear, I could see it rise and fall. “He’s alive,” I thought, “Can’t they all see he’s alive?” I didn’t know why I needed to kiss the casket, but I followed suit and did as the others did. There were hundreds of people present, and yet the church was silent.
The silence was broken by the sound of nearing footsteps. I watched a man walk down the center aisle carrying a black case. He knelt beside my grandfather’s side as he took out his accordion. He spoke not a word, and yet all in attendance knew the message of his heart as he played a familiar tune… Te Vas, Angel Mio. My mother once told me that the accordion can cry. That day I heard it for myself.
Te vas Angel Mio (You’re leaving, My angel)
Ya vas a partir (You’re ready to part)
Dejando mi alma herida (Leaving my wounded soul)
Y un corazon a sufrir (And my suffering heart)
While Latino tradition discourages the community sharing of family problems and public expression of feelings in a therapeutic setting, (Falicov, 1998) such practices are celebrated when expressed through poetry, story-telling, and song. Thoughts and feelings that are found to be too difficult to articulate can be more easily conveyed and processed (implicitly or explicitly) through the arts.
Gabriel, 57, was lying in his hospital bed surrounded by people who loved him. His illness had been getting the best of him; he was weak and had little ability to speak. For days, our family stayed close providing support by bringing in food, and drinks, and a guitar. “Do you want music?” they asked. He nodded. We made a circle around his bed, and sang his favorite songs. Gabriel tapped his hands in time with the music, and nodded in acknowledgement. When we began to play Un Dia La Vez, tears swarmed down his face.
Un Dia La Vez, Dios Mio (One day at a Time, Sweet Jesus)
Es Lo Que Pido de Ti (Is all I’m asking from you)
Dame La Fuerza (Give me the strength)
Para vivir Un Dia La Vez (To live one day at a time)
Un Dia La Vez, which translates to the English version of One Day At a Time, identifies man’s need for God’s help through the difficult times. Many Latinos use this song as a daily prayer and reminder that God is in control and that we need not worry.
An understanding of the Latino perspective toward death and dying may be obtained by reviewing music frequently played at Latino wakes or rituals (Fajardo, 2008).
I recently conducted a survey asking Latino respondents to 1) Identify songs they have heard at Latino funerals 2) Identify songs that have been helpful for their own grief process and 3) Identify songs they would want played at their own funeral/memorial service. Of 50 surveys dispersed, 25 responded. Respondents were Latinos ages 18 through 65. All identified as Christians, with 22 identifying themselves specifically as Catholic. One popular response was Las Golondrinas (literally “the swallows”), a man’s confession to a bird that he feels lost and regrets that he cannot escape as she can. The song invokes feelings of sadness, confusion and loss. The most popular choices noted were Adios Angel Mio, Un Dia La Vez and Amor Eterno (which received the most votes).
“Dad, if you had to choose a song that you would want played at your funeral, what would it be?” I didn’t think he would actually answer, as these are not the kind of conversations to which we are accustomed. My father, a 67 year old, Mexican-American cowboy seemed less than excited about my query. “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about that,” he answered. So I pushed a little further. “C’mon Dad, take a moment and think about it.” “What for?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “It’s for science…and you would be helping me with an experiment I’m conducting.” (I knew that would work!) After a moment of silence, my father responded gruffly, “Amor Eterno.” “Wow, who would have guessed?” I thought to myself. Those two words gave me such insight to my father’s belief in love and in the afterlife. He had never spoken of this to me before.
Amor Eterno, (My Eternal Love)
E inolvidable (You are unforgettable)
Tarde o temprano estaré contigo (Sooner or later I will be with you)
Para seguir, amándolos (So I can continue loving you/your eyes)
Amor Eterno (Eternal Love) was written by artist Juan Gabriel and sung by Rocio Durcal in response to the death of her son who died by drowning. A man sings to his deceased loved one, professing his eternal love beyond the grave.
It should be noted that direct questioning from a practitioner about grief and loss may not be the most effective approach to bereaved Latino clients. Instead, asking them to journal and reflect about songs that have special meaning may offer a less threatening medium for fostering difficult but crucial conversations. This intervention assists clients in identifying their beliefs regarding Life and Death, identifying their feelings, and in processing grief whether individually or in groups.
Latino social workers, therapists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals recently participated in a workshop on Death, Dying and Bereavement (Latino Behavioral Health Institute Conference, 2008). Since that workshop, several practitioners have reported that they have introduced this intervention to their practice and have found it to be effective for individual, group, and family grief facilitation for Latino families. Music’s unique capacity to capture and convey images and themes from Latino culture provides a powerful alternative route to conventional approaches to helping the Latino bereaved.
DeSpelder, L.A., & Strickland, A. L. (2002). The last dance: Encountering death and dying (6th ed., p. 24). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Fajardo, A. (2008, September). Perspectives on death and dying: A review of Latino music and poetry. Paper presented at the Latino Behavioral Health Institute Conference, Los Angeles, CA.
Falicov, C.J. (1998) Latino Families in Therapy: A Guide to MulticulturalPractice NewYork: Guilford Press.
Gabriel, J. (1984) Amor Eterno. [Rocio Durcal]. On Rocio Durcal Canta a Juan Gabriel [CD]. Ariola International. (1989)
McGoldrick,M. & Giordano, J. (2005) Ethnicity and Family Therapy. New York: Guilford Press.
Reyna, C. (1997 ) Te Vas Angel Mio. [Ramon Ayala]. On En Las Alas de un Angel [CD]. Freddie Records. (2003)
Sevilla, N. (1862) La Golondrina. [Caetano Veloso] On Fina Estampa [CD]. Dominio Publico. Universal Music. (1994)
Wilkin, M. (1975). One Day at a Time. [Los Tigres Del Norte] On Un Dia a La Vez
[ CD]. (1994)
 Susto: a folk illness generally caused by fear
 Other songs named were “Old Mexican Canciones” (Alfredo Jimenez, Pedro Infante, Ramon Ayala) and Linda Ronstadt’s “Canciones de Mi Padre”.