Monday, November 02, 2009

Feliz Dia de los Muertos! Day two of the celebration

The celebration continues today with the honoring of the adults. Yesterday was for honoring the children and I shared about going to the cemetery. Many times there is a central place where you can celebrate with friends and family or created family. Now in most cities in the US you really cant have a party at the cemetery (there are some exceptions in some towns in the SW) so we have the celebration at someones house, a church, community center, or other gathering place.
Then its time to build the altar or offrenda. Now here is another place that I see people get a little uncomfortable with the idea of this celebration. I like to say that we all carry our own backpack of experiences, we get one when we arrive. Then as we grow in life people add things to it, we add our experiences and it just grows. But here's the thing, we see life through that lens of understanding and sometimes through our ethnocentrism we think everyone would be better if they lived life as we do. Now I'm not dissing anyones way of living, we all have to make those decisions for ourselves, its just that when we start trying to impose our way on others that becomes a real problem. So what I am asking is that you try on, you know like you try on shoes, well just try on the idea that there are other ways of doing know like folding the towels. That said if your backpack says that an altar is to sacrifice something or to worship then get ready to expand your definition of the idea.
Altar built for community gathering at Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock
honoring historical figures, family members, and community.
Ofrenda or Altar

While some visit the graves of loved ones, others build an ofrenda/offering, or altar, in their home or other gathering place. Many people have one in their homes right now they just don't use these terms. Its the place where you have a Beloved's picture and maybe a few cositas or mementos that remind you of them or maybe belonged to the person. You keep them as a daily visual reminder of your Beloved in a personal space.
You can also do this in public spaces. For example when Michael Jackson died many people put flowers and gifts in place to honor him, or roadside places where you see balloons or gifts. These can all be considered contemporary versions of the same. The terms are different but the bottom line is its a special space to honor/celebrate/remember a loved one. Dia de los Muertos just gives us a special day to share with others and have a celebration dedicated to them. Altars or places of remembrance are found in various places and can be created by anyone.
There are many ways to prepare to set up the space and this is just my Chicana Tejana way. There is no right or wrong way when it comes to honoring and celebrating a beloved. I like to use ways that elders taught me so I am sharing some of that with you. There are many different things that I do but I am just sharing the framework so to speak about the celebration. In my workshops we spend more time on the different ways to celebrate, historical and symbolic items and how to personalize the celebration for your comfort level. And we have fun making art.
The work is done in some cases in stages over a period of days when time and space allow. Creating the artwork, food, and gathering of all the special items can take all year long. For me its an ongoing process. I create an art quilt to serve as a backdrop for some of my altars and I often dedicate it to one specific group. Like those lost in the wars, hate crimes, HIV/AIDS, historical figures, and always a personal one at my home to honor friends and family.
Some believe that the Spirits of those who have gone on before come back to visit us on these two days. Others believe they are our Guides/Angels that are with us daily. Others believe that this is just symbolic and this is just a way to remember them. And still others believe a combination. The following information I share with you as it was told to me and it has elements of the above beliefs.
Traditional Three Levels Many Indigenous people believe in the 3 deaths:
  • 1st the body ceases to function
  • 2nd the body is returned to the earth; we all are a part of nature
  • 3rd and final death when there is no one left to remember us

First Presbyterian Little Rock 2009 to honor Lucy transgender young woman

Using non scary Skeletons for the Ofrenda
  • By remembering each year we cheat the final death; this is one reason the skeletons are smiling.
  • Skeletons represent death and rebirth.
  • Skeletons symbolize the “eternalness” of the soul or spirit of the deceased.
  • Sugar skulls are reminders that memories are sweet!!!
  • Most are depicted in artwork portraying activities and jobs that the deceased carried out while living.
  • The popular images were created artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913); Posada’s artwork often used the images to portray political satire.

La Catrina artquilt detail inspired by Posada's work

Personal Items

  • New clothing and grooming products such as soap, washcloth, comb for the dead to refresh after the long journey back.
  • Add photos of the one being honored.
  • Capture the essence of the person or persons being honored; include personal items cooking utensils, tools, games, toys, sewing items and so on.

Altar to honor Gloria Anzaldua her photo and books she authored

Altars can share community and personal history
Remembering friends, family, and historical individuals keeps their stories and memories alive.It provides an opportunity for those who do not know about them or their work to learn about someone significant in your life or a period in history.

  • Many marginalized communities create altars to share stories of civil rights leaders, community organizers, and others who made their mark but are not listed in school textbooks.
  • Its also a way for the youngest to get to know those who came before in the family and gain a better understanding of the family.

Altar honoring Cesar Chavez, Farm worker Rights Activist and Corky Gonzales, Chicano Civil Rights Activist

Favorite Foods

  • Fruits, favorite foods, and beverages of the deceased are prepared for the dead to feast on the aromas.
  • The food is created and placed on the altar and stories are shared as is the food.
  • Pan de muertos or bread of the dead is also created by bakeries or at home. Its a sweetened bread baked in round loaves or skull shapes.

Tradition of Salt and Water

  • A glass of water to quench the thirst after the journey
  • Salt is considered the spice of life; it is provided for the dead to spice up things because the sense of taste may be lacking since they have been gone

Papel picado (perforated or pricked paper)

  • Indigenous people used paper in religious and healing rituals. Most of the 'papel picado' was made of paper called amate from fig or mulberry bark. You can find beautiful artwork produced on this paper.
  • During French occupation of Mexico 'papel chino' or tissue paper was introduced; it continues to be the paper used most often for a traditional celebrations. The fusion of so many traditions has created contemporary versions of many cultural items (no doubt for mass production making it a dying art form, but don't get me started) and you can now purchase thin plastic versions of this paper. You can even have them cut with your Beloveds names.

Scents for the Ofrenda

  • Sage can be used to cleanse the area before setting up the space.
  • Copal incense burned to clear the path for spirits return; has a strong aroma to guide the spirits home.
  • Scented candles sometimes with the Beloveds name on them.
  • Marigolds and other flowers; Marigolds "the flower with 400 lives," were thought by the Aztec to symbolize death. It is believed that the scent of the petals forms a welcome path for the spirits to return to their altar or grave.

Night is falling and I need to get myself prepared for the final celebration tonight. I can already smell the sage and copal burning, the photos that tell all the stories are lit with candles and its time to celebrate. Time to remember the lessons they taught me, sing the songs we shared, tell the jokes that brought laughter, and most of all feel the love we shared. Blessings to you and your Beloveds this night.

GRACIAS!!! I hope you learned some things and even if you don't add them to your backpack maybe next time you see some one with a fancy for skulls or marigolds in November you might not be so quick to judge. Maybe you will remember this blog and how you tried on a new way of honoring and celebrating your loved ones. It might not fit and that's OK I appreciate that you read this far and tried it on! All we can do as humans is try to reach out and connect with one another, we have different ways of doing things and loving but its all about our human kindness. Lets not forget to be both, human and kind. Its in the attempt to understand that we can begin to build bridges. Just try it on and open your heart, the mind will follow.


  1. I read your comments on the quiltart list and had to come see your blog. What a feast. I am set up an RSS feed so I can read your future posts.

    Ruthie in Austin

  2. As always, informative, heartfelt and spiritual. I always feel as if I learn something which I can adapt and add to my practices.