How do we remember? History, heritage, and healing on Dia de los Muertos

Pablo Rangel ofrenda

On Sunday November 1, 2015 the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) hosted their annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. More than 10,000 visitors converged at the museum and the grounds surrounding it to experience the art exhibitions and festival traditions. This year the event included more than seventy community-sourced ofrendas or altars dedicated to the dearly departed. The displays ranged from small and conventional to large and modern. One group of participants commemorated the 43 murdered students from Iguala, Mexico, including photographs of the scholars and pamphlets describing the event of their apparent demise. Another exhibitor built a modest altar dedicated to her grandfather and grandmother including three photographs and a few sugar skulls.

I enthusiastically accepted an offer to contribute to the event as well. My mother, my wife, and I designed, built, and curated an ofrenda to my father, Johnny, who passed away in July 2014. Participating as an exhibitor raised questions for me about the history of Día de los Muertos and my connection to the heritage that created it.

Once I agreed to construct the ofrenda I realized that I didn’t really know how to make one. My family did not observe Day of the Dead. However, shortly after my father died that all changed. I was compelled to celebrate his life and acknowledge my own loss. I put a few of Johnny’s possessions and some old family photos on a bookshelf in my Hyde Park apartment. I even displayed a note he left for me to find after his final visit to Chicago a few months before any of us knew he was ill. At first I didn’t consider this a Day of the Dead expression, but now I recognize the significance.

Including Day of the Dead traditions in my own healing process is culturally relevant in the U.S. now more than ever. For example, the NMMA introducing community-sourced ofrendas for the first time this year marks a transformative time in the institution’s 28-year history. Day of the Dead has even emerged in the U.S. mainstream, most notably in the recently released 007 film, Spectre. But witnessing popular cinema or organizing a few mementos in private is a far cry from publicly exhibiting one’s own recollections of a loved one’s life. What’s more, the NMMA’s call for ofrenda proposals required me to present my father’s story (or at least my version of it) within specific cultural boundaries of which I had little practical or historical knowledge. A little research revealed the long historical tradition in which I found myself participating.

Día de los Muertos is a legacy of convergence between Mesoamerican spiritual practice and European religious ceremony. Aztecs commemorated their dead during the summer month of Miccailhuitonli. This rite survived Spanish intervention in the 16th century but not without transformation. Catholic officials changed the summer observance to coincide with the Western Christian calendar’s day to commemorate the faithfully departed. Since then, Día de los Muertos and All Souls Day are both celebrated on November 2.  Today, Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday mostly celebrated in the central and southern regions. Although the ritual dates back 3,000 years it remained relatively unrecognized in the Mexican north and the U.S. borderlands until the 20th Century.

Modern ofrendas include a few basic themes in construction and presentation. The requirements and standards vary depending on which source you check, but these basics helped me to get started. Structurally, ofrendas include a three-tiered altar. The lower portion dedicated to the underworld, the next to the world of the living, and the third to the afterlife. A large photo of the departed is the centerpiece of the top level. The offering includes the deceased’s favorite food and drink. Water is served to refresh the soul on its journey. Papel picado (cut paper) adorns the altar and captures the wind. Cempasuchitl, the Aztec term for marigolds, grow and wilt quickly, reflecting the fleeting nature of life. Their aroma helps lure a spirit back. Candles give light to help direct a path to this world. Personal belongings make the spirit comfortable and welcome upon return. Although this new knowledge prepared me to construct Johnny’s ofrenda I did not expect the significant healing affect the process allowed my family and me. 

Creating the altar allowed us to commemorate Johnny privately and publicly. Together we constructed the altar on the field behind NMMA and told the story of Johnny’s life and death through words, images, and artifacts.  An entire community that did not know Johnny helped us to celebrate him and mourn his passing. In the end I realized that Día de los Muertos is much more than sugar skulls and painted faces. It is history. It is heritage. It is healing. 

Pablo Rangel is a Director of Assessment at Ask Big Questions, and a doctoral student at the University of Chicago.