In this year of incredible loss, we prepare to celebrate Dia de los Muertos and invite you to honor the tradition, as we resolve to keep up the fight in the name of our ancestors, our communities, and our future. One out of the many diverse popular expressions and traditions practiced on this day across the Americas, and expressly in Mexico and throughout Central America, is creating an altar or ofrenda.
To compound this devastation, innumerable Black and Brown lives were also robbed by the ongoing pandemics of police brutality, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and murders of trans folks, especially Black trans women. In this year of incredible loss, we prepare to celebrate Dia de los Muertos and invite you to honor the tradition, as we resolve to keep up the fight in the name of our ancestors, our communities, and our future.
Dia de los Muertos is a festivity born out of the syncretism that ties Indigenous tradition and Catholic practices, in which we celebrate the momentary return of our dead.
One out of the many diverse popular expressions and traditions practiced on this day across the Americas and expressly in Mexico and throughout Central America is creating an altar or ofrenda. An ofrenda or tlamallani (in Nahuatl) is an essential part of this celebration, as its main function is to receive the spirits and guide them to the house of their loved ones so that they can meet again in a dimension that allows them to coexist.
It’s important to note that you can build an altar in whatever way speaks to you and your ancestors. If you’ve never built one before, here are some crucial elements to add to your own Day of the Dead altar:
Levels, an altar can be of different levels: two, three or seven. The simplest one is the one with two levels, which represent earth and the sky. Altars that have three levels represent the sky, the earth and the underworld. The altar with seven levels is the most traditional and symbolizes the steps necessary for the deceased to reach heaven and rest in peace.
Photograph/s of your loved one/s, to honor who they were in life.
Water is served to quench the thirst of the spirit that is traveling to reach your altar.
Pan de muerto, a sweet treat that comes in many forms depending on region, but can look like a round bread with a skull and bones on top. Its circular shape refers to the cycle of life and death through which each person passes.
Cempasuchitl, which comes from it’s Nahuatl name; Cempohualxochitl, are orange marigolds which are known to lure the spirits to your altar with their vibrant color and aroma.
Candles, their flame is the light and the hope that guides your loved ones. Four candles at the top of your altar imply the cardinal directions which provide them a lighted path into this world.
Papel picado, delicately decorated tissue paper, gives color to your ofrenda and represents the wind and fragility of life.
Salt, a purifying element usually placed on a dish to stop the souls of the deceased from being corrupted by earthly temptations.
Their favorite knickknacks, food, or tools, to create a familiar setting for their return.
Sugar skulls, or calaveras de azúcar, allude to the ever-presence of death, and sometimes have the dead’s names written on them.
Copal and incense, fragrance of reverence that cleanses the environment and drives away evil spirits.
What are some elements you add to your ofrenda? Beyond the altar, it’s important to use this day to gather with your family and friends, even if virtually, to remember loved ones lost, share stories, celebrate their return, and affirm our commitment to defend our communities’ right to thrive.
Special thanks to xime izquierdo ugaz for the offering.
This ofrenda (or offering) is part of a series that describes in more detail the traditions of Día de los Muertos. In 2020, we hope that everyone who comes to honor their ancestors and to celebrate life takes that energy and channels it into deep and long-term organizing. Join us in taking the immediate step of voting out Trump - the biggest threat we face to our ability to thrive as a comunidad.