My Family Built Our First Día de los Muertos Altar in 20 Years After My Abuela’s Passing

While building an ofrenda is our way of honoring my abuela’s memory and legacy, I’m finding that it’s also a potential way for us to heal

Dia de los Muertos Altar

Photo courtesy of Sofia Aguilar

Contrary to popular belief (and unfortunately, Pixar’s Coco), many Mexican-American families don’t observe Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, including mine before this year. In Mexico, observance of the holiday is rarely celebrated except in the southern part of the country, and even Mexico City didn’t begin hosting its iconic Day of the Dead parade until 2016 when the James Bond film Spectre depicted one in its opening scene. Yet another example of the region’s European and Indigenous cultural blend, the holiday has roots in both Catholic and Aztec celebrations of death, including All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and Quecholli, a celebration that influenced the practice of building ofrendas, or altars, with food.

But I’ll be honest, up until this year, I didn’t know that. Nor did I really understand that joyous, celebratory nature of the day, the significance of displaying photos of the dead beside a dish or dishes of their favorite food, lighting candles, laying bunches of marigolds, or sprinkling marigold petals to attract the souls of the dead to the offerings with their strong scent. Even sharing pan de muerto (sweet bread with bone-shaped engravings and anise seeds) amongst the living relatives and decorating sugar skulls has been a foreign tradition to me because I’ve only done it once and with a friend’s family, not my own.

Often, older generations don’t know much about the holiday either. For example, my maternal grandmother and our family’s matriarch, Mama Alicia, was born in Sinaloa, a state in the northern part of Mexico, and later raised her three daughters (my mom and two aunts) in Tijuana, a city nestled right at the U.S.-Mexico border. They rarely observed national Mexican holidays, let alone Día de los Muertos, which continued even as they immigrated to the U.S., at least until celebrations became more popular in the late 90s in both countries.

Dia de los Muertos altar
Photo courtesy of Sofia Aguilar

After her passing this February, something changed in my family’s dedication to Día de los Muertos. While in past years we’ve attended one or two parades in Los Angeles, maybe painted our faces to resemble the iconic skull imagery of the day, this October, it was like an urgent need to observe the holiday simultaneously passed through all of us. She became the reason we built our first ofrenda in over 20 years. Why we went out and bought marigold bouquets, purchased pan de muerto from our local bakery, debated about what dishes to serve (for my abuela, a Hershey’s bar and a piece of pan dulce), and gathered together to build an altar.

What’s so interesting, at least to me, is that my abuela’s passing has been one of several deaths since I was born. From my grandfather to several cousins both close and distant, my family has been no stranger to loss. So what makes this October and November season so different?

Pan de muerto
Photo courtesy of Sofia Aguilar

Over the course of her lifetime, my abuela has been the most important person on the maternal side of our family, the one we all collectively loved the most. As the matriarch, her house was the one we visited most often, where we held our largest parties. Like so many other women-led families, she was the center of our world. Plus the fact that her passing happened so unexpectedly—one week after turning 99—something had shifted inside all of us and made Día de los Muertos that much more urgent and necessary to celebrate, even if she herself didn’t do so while she was alive.

While building an ofrenda is our way of honoring my abuela’s memory and legacy, I’m finding that it’s also a potential way for us to heal from the loss of her and all our other ancestors, or at least to begin walking on that road. Rather than dealing with it alone, grief is meant to be shared among the people you love. And even though my family’s several decades late, I’m grateful that our ofrenda has been patient with us in its wait to be made and that our Mexican heritage has allowed us this day to grieve, celebrate, and find again what we once lost.

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