Mexican Cultural Institute’s Annual “Day of the Dead Altar”

On November 8th, AAFSW members had a guided tour of the Mexican Cultural Institute’s annual “Day of the Dead Altar.” This is a special day that takes place on November 1 and 2 where people believe that the souls of the departed return to earth to visit their families. We keep them alive in memory and spirit.

This year, Mexican artist Enrique Quiroz created the altar, or ofrenda, which honors prominent Mexican figures who passed away this year, including artist Francisco Toledo, humanitarian Miguel León Portilla, and singer José José. The ofrenda also honors the victims of the El Paso shooting that happened in August.
During the day of the dead or Día de los Muertos, the family often takes the opportunity to visit the gravesite, clean any debris, and decorate the graves of loved ones. The centerpiece of the celebration is the ofrenda, which is usually built in private homes and cemeteries. The traditional elements of the altar are the candles, papel picado (pierced paper to decorate), catrinas (elegant skeletal ladies), alebrijes (fanciful animals), and orange marigold flowers (Cempasuchil) to guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. Some families place their dead loved one’s favorite meal on the altar like beans, tamales, mole, cactuses, rice, loaves of bread called pan de muerto, sugar skulls and fruit.

The family visits, eats, prays and tells favorite stories about those who have passed. The altar at home also depicts the pictures of departed relatives. Drinks should be placed in the altar to quench the thirst of the dead after their long journey back home. The point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members.

In this way, living and dead are reunited in a dimension that allows them to live together. Offerings are placed on a table with two levels that symbolize heaven and earth. In the case that it has three levels, purgatory is added. The largest are seven levels, they represent the steps to reach eternal rest. Living expressions of culture, traditions, passed down from generation to generation.

The artist Quiroz was inspired by the Prismas Basalticos from the State of Hidalgo in Mexico, and by the talavera tiles. Bright colorful contours of papel cempasuchil highlight the two structures consisting of 7 levels of an ofrenda, two on each side, representing the two sister cities, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.

In the middle stands a traditional altar with two colors, orange and yellow, representing the border. The kites floating above serve as vehicles for the souls of the dead to come and visit. The Mexican hearts signify the divine trinity and the yearning for our loved ones that have passed away. The Catrina Garbancera reminds us of the simple message that no matter how rich or poor we are, at the end of the day we all turn into bones.

Living expressions of culture — traditions — are passed down from generation to generation. In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Día de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Thank you to the Mexican Cultural Institute for their hospitality and the wonderful explanation of the special exhibition and the Murals.

Adah Ellenport
AAFSW Member