For as long as I can remember Día de los Muertos was something we talked about as a family because of its significance both in our family and our Mexican culture. I have always known about it but never known what it truly means and much less built one of my own. While my immediate family does not usually take part in making ofrendas, I have family in Mexico who has. For some time, death in the family was not something that I thought about, especially when I was younger. It wasn’t until the sudden loss of my Tío Luis that I was able to understand what loss really meant in our family. In years after his passing, my family—both here and in Mexico—have had a hard time putting his picture up on the ofrenda. While they make sure to add his favorite food, drinks, or objects that remind them of him, placing a photo has been too difficult to do.
Grief as well as the celebration of life all came to a front when I decided to take a course on Día de los Muertos at my school. I was drawn to it because I wanted to take as many courses that centered my culture and the traditions that I had grown up seeing and hearing about. What I wasn’t prepared for was the vulnerability that sharing stories of loved ones who’ve passed would entail. Joining the class, I understood there would come a point where I would have to share about my Tío Luis and since it had been years after his passing, I thought it would be easier. During that time, I considered just how loss has affected me and found that remembering him, while resurfacing sadness and grief, brought me closer to him. I had met my Tío Luis when I was in 2nd grade and he had come from Mexico to stay with us for a while. I have memories of him picking me up from school and teasing me for watching the telenovela Alegrijes y Rebujos. I felt closer to him than before when I first set his photo down for him to be a part of something so meaningful and special.
The ultimate goal of the class was to present detailed and thorough ofrendas in groups that honored our loved ones. Through our ofrendas, we’d share with our peers and community members how we’ve taken what we’ve learned about these traditions and applied them. My experience taking this class was transformative to say the least. Not only did it connect me with my uncle, but it also changed my perspective on death. The way the class presented death was not in the sort of pessimistic light that I was used to perceiving it. I believe that part of the reason why I don’t think about death is because it scares me. It seems so definite. What I realized was that the purpose of these ofrendas and the offerings is that those you’ve lost, return to share space with you once again. While grief is painful, it is comforting to know there is so much more that comes after—there is a way to reconnect.
When it came time to build my own ofrenda this year, I began to look back on what I had learned in that class along with information from my own research. I looked through how other people set up their ofrendas and kept the timeline of the festivities in mind to make sure I was staying in line with traditions. Deciding to make my first ofrenda came with a lot of pressure. This is the first time I am partaking in such a beloved tradition meant to honor the memory of our family and ancestors. I want nothing more than for this ofrenda to be as beautiful and worthy of not only my loved ones, but my roommates’ loved ones who I also wanted to share this experience with.
I had an idea of what I wanted the ofrenda to look like and how I was going to get there. I implemented some of the ideals of rasquachismo—an artform in Chicano communities valuing being resourceful and essentially “doing what you can with what you have”. I found blankets at home that I used to cover some furniture that we had laying around. I bought two rolls of party streamers to make cempasúchil garlands and individual flowers to adorn the ofrenda. I coupled that with some candles and papel picado that I was able to buy and formed the base. One of my roommates brought extra picture frames for everyone to use and the altar slowly started to come together. I made use of plates and glasses we already owned to present our loved ones with food and water. From there we gathered food elements and objects that remind us of them to add to the ofrenda. What at first was something I had mentioned in passing, was now a reality. We had created a space in this house for such an important and symbolic tradition.
When I started planning the ofrenda, I thought of the overgeneralizations people can make about Día de los Muertos. What stood out most to me was the idea that this holiday can be summarized by others as merely “Mexican Halloween”. This statement baffles me as I think of the work and vulnerability that goes into building these ofrendas, the rich cultural history and Indigenous ties that Día de los Muertos represents.
Undermining this history and tradition undermines the communities that created it and have continued to celebrate it. This overgeneralization makes me think of the labor that flower vendors and artists do for these celebrations to flourish. There is so much meaning to the work that it takes for Día de los Muertos to happen and it makes me appreciate and embrace my culture even more now that I have been able to better understand it firsthand.