Oct 12, 2015

The Meaning of the Altar

Smithsonian Latino Center (SLC)

Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum Day of the Dead/ Día de los Muertos

La Ofrenda
The welcoming back of the spirits is observed in households with the creation of ofrendas. The quality and degree of ornamentation of the ofrendas depend on regional traditions, family and individual wealth, recent deaths, or the year’s harvest. On the ofrenda, the main objects are symbolic of life’s elements: water, wind, fire, and earth. Water is served in a clay pitcher or glass to quench the spirit’s thirst from their long journey. Fire is signified by the candles that are lit. Wind is signified by papel picado (tissue paper cut-outs). The earth element is represented by food, usually pan de muerto (bread of the dead).  Other offerings include mole, fruit, chocolate, atole, toys, calaveritas de azúcar, and copal incense. 

Learn about the tradition and cultural practice for honoring our ancestors through the animated
stories from a rumbustious teenager named Florentina and her wise Abuelita.

Although the arrival of the Spanish drastically changed the lives of the indigenous people, their beliefs did not disappear. Instead, Spanish clergymen likened the indigenous gods to Catholic saints.

This is the flower that is symbolic of death for the Aztec culture in pre-Colombian Mexico. This is the ‘flor de muerto’ and it is used to decorate ofrendas.

Water is placed in the ofrenda to quench the thirst of the sprits. It also symbolizes the element of life.

Besides the pan de muerto, altares usually contain typical food items such as rice, mole, pumpkin, as well as the fruits of the season, especially oranges and apples for their natural perfume.

Sugar skulls are decorated with sugar flowers, designs and have, sometimes, the name of the loved one written on the forehead. They represent death and the sweetness of life.

Copalli incense comes from the copal tree. It symbolizes the transformation from the physical, the tree, to the supernatural, the perfumed smoke. The rising smoke takes the prayers to the heavens and the gods.

Candles guide and light the path of the spirits to their ofrendas. Candles can come in different sizes depending in the altar is for a child or an adult.

Pan the muerto is especially made to place on the ofrendas and graves. It’s sweet bread flavored with anis and orange peel. It’s baked in a round shape like a skull. It symbolizes the main state of human life.

A framed photo of the deceased to whom the altar is dedicated, usually positioned in a prime spot on the altar.

Papel picado are tissue paper banners with cut out designs of animated skeleton figures. They decorate ofrendas, homes, streets and buildings. They symbolize the wind, one of the elements of life.

Oral Histories
The Hollywood Forever Oral History Series features the stories of different families explaining the meaning of the elements displayed on their altars. 

Personal items, like a favorite book or clothing from the honoree are also part of the Day of the Dead tradition. Without being mandatory, these elements make the ofrenda even more personal.

A Room of her Own: An Altar for my Mother
“I don’t believe in heaven or hell, I believe you live on in your kids.” –Elvira Cordero Cisneros, mother of Sandra Cisneros.

Day of the Dead Festival
Live Mobile Broadcast Series with Sandra Cisneros
Day 1

Day of the Dead Festival
Live Mobile Broadcast Series with Sandra Cisneros
Day 2

Day of the Dead Festival
Live Mobile Broadcast Series with Sandra Cisneros
Day 3, Part 1

Day of the Dead Festival
Live Mobile Broadcast Series with Sandra Cisneros
Day 3, Part 2

Other Altar Dedications
Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio: This altar by Amalia Mesa-Bains (1984, revised 1991), was on view in the exhibition “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Mesa-Bains created this work to honor Dolores del Rio, the Mexican actress who dazzled audiences in the United States and Mexico from the 1920s until her death in 1983.    

The use of many colors is very important in every altar –after all– Day of the Dead is always a reason to celebrate the souls and spirits.

Meaning of the Day of the Dead Ofrenda
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