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Tributes to the dead: Día de los Muertos altars honor ancestors, celebrate culture

An example of a political altar from El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos is on display at the West Side Community Center for Día de los Muertos. (Courtesy of Karen Cathey)

An example of a political altar from El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos is on display at the West Side Community Center for Día de los Muertos. (Courtesy of Karen Cathey)

As human beings, we often want to pay tribute to loved ones who have passed on. We live our lives in a manner we hope would make them proud, name succeeding generations after them and preserve their memory and heritage.

An altar for loved ones on Día de los Muertos can be an additional physical and artistic representation of that tribute.

Altars are an integral part of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. They serve as a memorial or shrine to departed loved ones.

“If you really look across the world, a lot of cultures have some kind of … ritual associated with death, or just a place of reflection,” says Sofía Martinez of Los Jardines Institute, a community center that conducts workshops on altars and other Mexican and Chicano cultural creations.

“The altars are a way of honoring your ancestors,” says Karen Cathey of La Raza Unida, who is the altar coordinator at the Westside Community Center where festivities occur following the South Valley’s Marigold Parade. It’s not unlike Memorial Day in the mainstream United States, she says.

Rooted in pre-Columbian cultures, the more indigenous, religious aspect is the belief that those who have passed on return to the earth that night, Martinez says, adding that it’s very ritualized with cleaning of the gravesite, praying, singing and setting up the altar.

Flowers, favorites

There are a number of regional variances in altars and Día de los Muertos rituals, Martinez says, but there are some common elements. Because the dead are believed to return, items are set out for them on the altar such as a glass of water to quench their thirst, food to satiate hunger and candles to light the way, she says. There’s also commonly a fragrance component, such as the burning of copal, sage, cedar or incense.

Cathey says contemporary altars often feature photos, a favorite food item or beverage and anything the departed had a particular affinity for in life.

Marigolds are often associated with Día de los Muertos and their accompanying altars because “usually in this part of the world, those are the flowers that are the last ones to bloom,” Martinez says.

Cultural origins

“To me, Día de los Muertos and altars is kind of a coming together of the indigenous and European kind of different ways of looking at the altars, but also the politicized version of it,” Martinez says, explaining that there is a more secular version that can be artistic, political and satirical.

An altar by the Archibeque family is on display at the West Side Community Center for Día de los Muertos. (Courtesy of Karen Cathey)

An altar by the Archibeque family is on display at the West Side Community Center for Día de los Muertos. (Courtesy of Karen Cathey)

“Poking fun is probably more the Mexican part of the culture, where the European and indigenous have already become mestizo,” she says. “It’s got all these layers of culture and history and stuff that I think come at different points in history to the activity itself, and I think here in the U.S. it’s more of an artistic expression.”

Even though what we witness here is more of the artistic version and celebration of loved ones in the great beyond, Martinez wants those participating in Día de los Muertos events to respectfully remember the cultural and religious origins.

All Saints Day, Nov. 1, honors the souls of the innocent such as children and people with disabilities, Cathey says, while All Souls Day, Nov. 2, honors all those who’ve passed.

This year the 23rd annual South Valley Día de los Muertos Marigold Parade begins at 2 p.m. Nov. 1.

Neither the altars nor the parade for Día de los Muertos represent gloom and morbidity, as some may infer from some of the imagery, Martinez says, adding that for many indigenous cultures, death is merely a transition, not an end to be feared.

“It’s not Halloween. It’s not goblins and ghouls and witches and stuff like that, and fear,” Martinez says. “It’s not about death and gloom and whatever, but it really is about celebrating people’s lives, and their contributions.”


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