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MECA Houston curator shares the significance of Día de los Muertos altars

HOUSTON – You may be familiar with the holiday known as Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead and have even seen the popular sugar skulls before, but do you know the significance behind the altars that are a prominent piece of the celebration? The altars, also known as ofrendas, pay homage to families' ancestors and often have a specific structure with certain components that all have their own purpose. Luis Gavito of MECA Houston shares more on the Latin American tradition.

“It’s a day of remembrance. It’s been around for about 3,000 years," said Gavito. “The Aztecs themselves celebrated a remembrance of their ancestors, then for the last 500 years it’s been influenced by Catholicism.”

Día de los Muertos is a celebration of Latin American folk art traditions to commemorate family and ancestry. Participants honor souls of the dead with altars containing food, drinks and photographs. The holiday is typically celebrated from October 31 through November 3.

“It usually starts October the 31st at midnight," said Gavito. “The people go to the cemeteries, and they start preparing the tombs.”

The gates between the living and the dead are said to open at midnight on October 31. November 1 is a day to remember children, known as El Dia de los Inocentes, as well as a day to honor the saints or All Saints Day. November 2 is known as All Souls Day and is a time to commemorate all of the departed. November 3 marks the end of the holiday and is typically when the altars are taken down.

“There is no wrong way or right way to make an altar, but the Mexican inspired altars usually have three levels,” said Gavito.

The first and topmost section is called The Celestial Level and is dedicated to the heavens. Here you can usually find crosses, depictions of angels and saints. The second level is dedicated to the remembered and is reserved for photographs or tokens to commemorate loved ones. The final level is for gifts, which typically includes water and food such as pan de muerto.

Additionally, altars usually incorporate the four elements, earth, wind, water and fire. Earth is represented by the food offered as well as incense. Wind is represented by the papel picado. Movement of the papel or paper is believed to indicate the presence of spirits. Water is represented by the drinks and containers of water. Finally, fire is represented by lit candles placed throughout the altar, usually depicting images of saints. Other significant components include The Bread of the Dead also known as Pan de Muerto and the Mexican Marigold flowers.

“[The marigolds] are referred to as ‘Cempasuchil,' and it means 20 petals," said Gavito. “The aroma and the color is said to attract the dead that are coming to visit.”

Altars can come in many variations and sizes. They do not have to be large or complicated in order to honor the dead. You can easily create one similar to the mini altar below with 2 shoe boxes, some paint, simple dollar store decorations and photos or your loved ones. Offerings can simply be placed on the ground around the altar.

To connect with Luis Gavito or learn more about Día de los Muertos visit the Meca Houston website.


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