Grief + Mourning

Juanita Garciagodoy (March 10, 1952 – October 27, 2011)

My good friend Juanita Garciagodoy died on Thursday, October 27, 2011. She was 59.

In July 2009, Juanita told me via e-mail that she had breast cancer and that it had metastasized. This was at the same time that the Death Reference Desk launched. I had sent Juanita a rather silly message about why she should check out the Death Reference Desk since she was a Meso-American studies scholar who had written about the Day of Dead (Día de los Muertos). She responded with her usual strong support and the fact that she was dying.

Suffice it to say that I felt like an idiot. A big one.

I promised Juanita that after she died, I would write about her for the Death Reference Desk. She reminded me of this promise over the years, most recently in our very last e-mail communication at the end of September 2011:

Thank you for your sweet note.
Remember? You owe me an obituary, my friend. No pressure, of course.

Juanita-in-Holly-Wilmeth-Photo-2Que Si, Juanita Garciagodoy. I do remember. And with tears streaming from my eyes while I type these words, I am honored to remember our friendship in writing.

I first met Juanita in October 2001 at an academic conference in Puebla, Mexico. It was the first time that I presented my Ph.D. research on the dead body and Juanita was unbelievably enthusiastic about my studies. Without any question, Juanita was the first academic from outside my own institution who expressed deep interest and support for my work. That we met in Mexico was a little ironic since she was a Professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and I was at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Juanita and I stayed in touch over the years, mostly by e-mail. From time to time she would send me news articles about a dead body topic. And by send, I mean she would physically cut them out and put the articles in the mail. I was particularly fond of the article on beetles that strip away cadaveric flesh. In 2005 she attended my Ph.D. defense (which is true sign of selfless friendship, let me just say) and in 2006 she brought an entire crowd of people to watch my one-man show On The Untimely Death of John Erik Troyer, Ph.D. at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theatre. In a nutshell, Juanita showed herself to be a wonderful friend during important moments in my adult life.

In June 2010, I gave a keynote lecture on Memorial Tattoos for the Death, Commemoration, and Memory conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Over the last few years, I’ve begun researching the history of tattooing and its relationship to human mortality. A central figure in that talk was Juanita. Indeed, Juanita has become (and will remain) a key figure in any talk that I give on tattooing.

After Juanita lost her hair due to radiation treatments, she decided to cover her head with tattoos. It is important to note, I think, that prior to this moment Juanita had never gotten a tattoo of any kind before. So not only did she choose to get a tattoo, she chose to tattoo her head – the most visible (and next to the face) hardest part of the tattooed human body to hide. Over a course of months, Juanita went from zero tattoos to a head full of colorful ink. She had her tattoos done at Leviticus Tattoos in Minneapolis, which I know she would want people to know.

It is Juanita’s tattoos that I want to discuss and remember the most. To the end of her days she defied conventional wisdom about how a person should live her life while dying from breast cancer. Her tattoos were, for me, a brilliant and moving outward expression of that defiance.

Juanita also had some seriously bad ass ink and the stories that her tattoos tell/told bear retelling here.

When Juanita first lost her hair she experimented with painting her head, but the paint rubbed off so she decided that tattoos were the logical solution. She and I spoke at length about the deeper reasons for the tattoos; the reasons that turned her tattoos into a profound choice about confronting death.

Henna-Ink-DesignsShe saw the tattoos as part of her identity and she felt that the visual collage on her head helped her assert the inevitability of her own death. On more than one occasion, Juanita told me that her tattoos were both a confrontation with life and a liberatory act in the face of death.

A great irony attached itself to her tattoos: Juanita wanted the tattoos so that people would talk about something, anything, other than her cancer. I always admired this particular reason – instead of waiting for the other person to think of a conversation topic, just give that person a bunch of tattoos staring them in the face as a tour de force kind of ice breaker. Sadly, and on many occasions, people would go to great lengths to avoid discussing the tattoos. She and I laughed about this situation, since her tattooed head was an obvious discussion topic. Alas, many people were either afraid to ask or couldn’t be bothered and it was their loss.


Here, then, are the stories that Juanita’s tattoos tell (as told to me by Juanita) and in no particular order:

The Singing Jaguar: a Meso-American poet symbol. Juanita wanted a representation of an ancient poet symbol to reflect her own writing.

MonkeyOzomahtli the Monkey: Mexican seal used to imprint objects. Juanita always felt that it was a beautiful design. Ozomahtli is also associated with spring, with song, with poetry, and with fertility in other contexts.

Grasshopper on Mountain: Pre-Spanish design from an Aztec art book. This was also the symbol for Juanita’s favorite park in Mexico City.

Rabbit in the Moon: In Meso-American story telling, Rabbit is said to have previously been a god, a humble god, who agreed to illuminate the night. As a result, Meso-American storytellers described seeing a rabbit in the moon. The rabbit was designed by friend from a prehistoric pot image. The moon image is taken from NASA, complete with craters. Juanita told me that she felt close to the moon. For her the moon was poetic and mysterious.

Owl-Jaguar-Rabbit-Moon-ColoredOwl hovering over a Book: The owl represented wisdom and it showed Juanita’s commitment to knowledge by reading the book. The peacock on the book’s cover is taken from the cover of a novel by her husband George. Juanita also explained to me that there is an old Mexican saying: When the owl sings the Indian dies. She believed that this saying described a confrontation with mortality that she, herself, was going through.

Cheshire-CatCheshire Cat: Juanita wanted a cat tattoo and she loved Alice in Wonderland. This was also a tattoo to remember all the dead pets.

Heart with jjjj: This was a code for “Juanita’s Handsome Husband Jorge.” I can’t replicate the accent that Juanita used to say those words, but it was very funny. The heart was also for love since Juanita and George loved each other very deeply.

Tree: The tree of knowledge which surrounded her head.

Snake-and-Humming-BirdSnake: A symbol of knowledge and transgression, as when Eve eats the apple in the Garden of Eden.

Humming Bird sipping out of a Star: Juanita loved the beauty of this image. The Hummingbird is also featured in ancient Meso-American stories. Three groups of people turned into hummingbirds or butterflies when they died: warriors who died in battle, people who were sacrificed, and women who died in childbirth. Juanita told me that at times she felt like her own body was sacrificing itself and betraying her. She often felt that she was battling cancer as a warrior.

El Don Quixote: Last but not least. Don Quixote was her first tattoo. Initially, Juanita was only going to get Don Quixote because she was told that the process might hurt. As is totally obvious, Juanita had the exact opposite reaction to the pain from that first tattoo. The image is by the artist Posada. Juanita told me that Posada was the kind of artist who pulled death into life with a great sense of humor. El Don Quixote also reminded her of the Day of the Dead, which was an area of her own research. Her 2000 book, Digging the Days of the Dead: A Reading of Mexico’s Dias de Muertos, had three Don Quixote’s on its cover.


One other important detail: all of the creatures have green-blue eyes, like Juanita’s eyes.

Even after it was possible for Juanita to grow her hair back, she decided to keep her head shaved. It was important to her that the tattoos be visible. Juanita explained to me that her tattoos were producing stories about her and her life.

Those tattooed stories, which live on today and will thrive for some time to come, are the narrative traces of Juanita Garciagodoy’s life.

These stories are also Juanita’s permanently inked memorial.

33 replies on “Juanita Garciagodoy (March 10, 1952 – October 27, 2011)”

This is so beautiful. I met Juanita this past January in San Miguel de Allende. I instantly loved her for the tattooed head, and we became close friends, as if we had always known each other. Even though our friendship lasted only 10 months, I mourn her deeply. Thank you for this tribute.

Thank you for writing this. I met Juanita in 2003 and we were in constant contact over the years. I had to laugh reading this because I also would receive via snail mail from time to time articles or documents she thought I would find of interest. I miss her greatly.

I met Juanita in 1970 at Macalester College. We were acquaintances, and had little contact over the years, but friends of mine remained in touch with her. I heard of her passing through Mac connections, and feel very sorry to hear that she is gone. Thank you for representing her so well here in this form.

thank you so much for this beautiful text. i am one of juanita’s nieces and i really appreciated reading this touching tribute to her and the incredible work of art that her head became in recent years…

Juanita, her siblings and parents and my family go way back many, many years. We grew up together. Thank you so much for such a wonderful tribute and explanation of her tattooes. They are indeed a reflection of her/our deep Mexican roots.

Thank you for publishing this text. How sadly ironic, or perhaps appropriate, to learn of Juanita’s death on October 31st. Her friendship when we were students at Macalester was as fundamental for my education as were any of the most enlightening classes, and over the years her intelligence, creativity and wisdom continued to inspire me.

John Troyer — thank you for this inspiring testimony. Juanita would have been delighted. As I am. One of the joys of my life with juanita was sharing her friendship with you.

I don’t know you, but I know OF you, because Juanita spoke so highly (and with such delighted curiosity) of your show at the Bryant Lake Bowl. Thank you for commemorating her spirit, life and wisdom in such a thoughtful piece!


Hello John, thanks for a lovely essay on Juanita, you have presented her sense of humor and defiance perfectly. She will miss be missed so much. I have a connection to this project, as I was the artist who did the painting on her head and drew the all the designs for the tattooists. She called me her co-conspirator. I conceived the overall project as un Arbol de la Vida, a Tree of Life, a traditional Mexican art motif. As you can see the roots are at the nape of her neck and the trunk with the heart and initials carved in it goes up her neck, with the branches holding all the designs you describe so well. This tree of life held all the things she held dear. I made the leaves crown her forehead like a laurel wreath, for the hero that she was. The Don Quixote is by Posada, not Bosara, if you would be so kind as to correct it when you have a moment. He’s a Mexican printmaker we both admired so it was an honor to reproduce his work on her head. It was the most extraordinary art project, allowing us to laugh and talk about living and dying throughout the many months it took to complete. Thanks again.

gods bless juanita, scholar, warrior, friend, teacher to my daughter at mac, co-member of grupo soap del corazón. may she move with the stars, may she glide with the mariposas, may she sit with the ancestors. we will all miss her, but the photo of her tattoos now goes up on my ofrenda where it will sit forever.

From our first meeting to our last lunch together in October, Juanita held me entranced and happy in her presense. I spoke with her often about life on earth after death and belief in ghostly company. She influenced me and for that I am grateful. I will welcome her visits to my thoughts for the rest of my life.

Thank you for this remembrance of Juanita. I meet her back in the early 90’s when I was part of the first Muertos show at Intermedia. She was very supportive of what we were doing. I was also very inspired by her knowledge and scholarship.
May her memory continue to be a blessing

Juanita gave me three small houses from various trips to Mexico. I lined them all up around the table in our house that houses all the magical things people have given me in my breast cancer recover–stones, waist beads, a Buddhist bracelet, two pocket tokens and the like. Sort of a makeshift altar for the Day of the Dead. I am happy for the times she has stepped in and out of my life, awed by her fierceness, and very sad she is now in another space.

Juanita and I met when she and George came to visit me in Mineral de Pozos, before I moved to San Miguel. George had been a client at my gallery, Guadalupe Fine Art in Santa Fe, but I had not met Juanita before that day in Pozos. We became instant friends, as I know now to be a common theme. They stayed and we talked for quite a while, and I think I fell in love with them both on that day. We kept in touch by email between their visits to San Miguel, and thanks to Juanita’s recommendation, I planned a trip to Mixquic with some friends, staying at Miguel’s Hotel San Rafael. There I heard even more stories about her, and whenever I’m there, I can feel her spirit.
I will never forget the day she wrote to tell about her cancer. As in every part of her life, she remained awesomely and profoundly creative and inventive in her struggle to survive. I am happy that we got to meet one last time, see her beautiful tattooed head, at the Instituto Fair last year. She inspired so much and so many.

Juanita was my first girlfriend in elementary school in Mexico. Our birthdays were a week apart and we stayed close always. Friends for 50 years! One can’t ask for more than that. Horse Crazy Jo remains in my heart and memories. I will miss you but your smile always stays the same for me. Thank you for the beautiful tribute.

Juanita was my teacher in high school, oh-so-many moons ago. I remember our first encounter vividly. We walked into the classroom to find Juanita, who looked like a high school student herself, sitting cross legged on top of her desk. She then shocked us by telling us we had her permission to skip class any time, as long as we didn’t get caught. She didn’t want anyone in the classroom who wasn’t interested and engaged. Despite that invitation, none of us dared miss her classes. Ever.

Like most others my age I was grappling with my own identity, trying to figure out what kind of person I was and who I wanted to be. What clique should I join and conform to? Juanita made it clear (by example, not lecture) that life is “Come as you are” — just show up as yourself.

I know that we studied literature and philosophy in her class, though the details escape me. Her ultimate lesson was much more profound and significant. I don’t think I ever thanked her in person. Think she can hear me now? Gracias, Juanita.

I just learned today of Juanita’s death. Here’s how I found out…We went to a tree lighting ceremony at N.C. Little Hospice, where my dad passed away, and I saw her name in the program and heard her name read out loud. So I lit two candles, one for my dad and one for Juanita. They were both college professors. They both died of cancer. I loved them both.

I just learned of Jo’s death today, stumbling upon her death notice in “in memorium” in Macalester Today. My grief is raw and fresh, for me Juanita died today. I hate that damned death, it’s always standing at our elbow if we’re not sitting in its lap. Finding this website and seeing the heartbreaking pictures has brought the tears. I lived next door to Juanita in 1970 in Kirk Hall, Macalester College. See how well loved Jody was in life and death.

Her gentleness in the Fall of 1970 made a person with no identity, except when on stage, almost faint with gratitude. Her hair, at 18, was
long and flowing. Her words were soft and knowing. Tu vivas siempre, mi amiga.

” ‘I would like to write you poetry,’ she said, she of the quick eyes and soft smile…”

About Juanita, long ago when we became friends at Mac. Juanita taught me that the moon was the Cheshire Cat’s smile, and I have never looked at the crescent moon without imagining the Cat. Or remembering Juanita.

We walked together in the procession when we graduated Mac in 1974. For some reason the Mac professors, who were following us in their academic robes, forgot to sit down in their appointed rows and circled us twice, to our enormous amusement.

Juanita was a friend of my heart, and there she will always be. Thank you to everyone who has remembered her here. My sympathies to her family and many friends and students.

Like Jim B and Jenette W above, I met Juanita in Kirk Hall back on the same day in the fall of 1970 when we showed up as newly minted freshmen at Macalester. My most vivid memory of her from those days was her laugh. Musical, joyous, and uplifting. I can hear it in my head as I type these lines.

To quote a good friend who also died to young (and who had this on his license plate) “Cancer Sucks”.

Thank you John. I’m the stepson of Juanita, and my father just forwarded me you page as we were discussing her tattoos recently. Nice reflection of what they meant to her. I’ve known her almost 30 years, but it’s interesting how they took on such significance for her and her loved ones during her last two years. In some sense tattoos are seen as permanent, but that is an illusion, as they are no more permanent then the flesh they are on. They live on, like memories of her, in the photos and words you have so well captured here. .john

Nice remembrance, John. Thanks for sharing. I met Juanita in 1977 at the American School in Mexico City and recall we frequently talked about writing and poetry. One of Juanita’s poems has hung from a bulletin board ever since she sent it in 1986. The final lines capture her essence:

“hands open are hands
to rejoice in the turning world
celebrate it rock it hold it
and let it be”

dearest juanita,
You were my friend nearly all my life–50 years! I am so glad that we grew back together in later years. I think of you and George often, with much love and remembrance, though I am not good at writing or putting such things into words. You left an indelible mark on my life, much like your tattoos, and I treasure having known you. Chuck

I can finally bear to write something here though I have known of Jo’s death since 2011. She and Becky Knight and I were roommates freshman year at Mac. My one source of comfort is that for one of the Mac reunions, maybe 2004, I came out to St. Paul and the three of us got together for dinner. I hadn’t seen her for years and it was wonderful to spend a little time together.

Dear John,
It has been four years now since my wife Juanita died and I remain moved by your beautiful and thoughtful essay. You captured an essential part of her character, bold and strong and courageous to the end. Thank you again and again.
Abrazo, George

Thank you so much for this remembrance, which I stumbled upon several years ago. At the time I had no idea of her passing, and read your post with tears and laughter in fond remembrance of Juanita’s creativity and humor.

It is October 2019, and have printed out some of these images of Juanita to place on the Dia de los Muertos altar here at my university, along with the cover of her book. Desde San Francisco de California, te estamos brindando y recordando con amor y tristeza, Juanita.

That’s it! I have to get an Ozomatli tattoo! Juanita personified the joy of life. I met her in 1970 at Macalester. She had some great bilingual jokes. That melodious voice and her infectious laugh. QEPD (May she rest in peace)

Juanita, you were generous and bright and always eager to listen to what I had to say with a kindness that surprised me every time. Though we lost touch, I have never forgotten your smile and your loving presence.

Juanita, you are much loved and always in my heart.

Hi John-
Thank you so much for this loving piece and tribute to Juanita Garciagodoy. I am only seeing this now but am so glad it is here and to read about her beautiful tattoos and their meaning. Juanita was so much more than my Spanish professor at Macalester. She was and remains an inspiration on how to be a loving presence in the world. She brought such warmth, beauty and curiosity to every encounter I had with her in and out of the classroom. I felt embraced by the depth of her ability to listen. I was always inspired by her work and look forward to taking some time with her book. Much love to all reading this and who crossed her beautiful path.

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