Now when it comes to talking about Dia de los Muertos… as a white, middle aged, blond haired, green eyed guera, I consider myself no entitled-ass expert over here or anything. But know this- while I am not Mexican by birth I married one, we’re raising three, AND I made alters for Dia de los Muertos before the movie Coco came out. To further prove my bit of street cred, I totally love all things to do with the Mexican culture. Also I’m taking Spanish lessons on Rosetta Stone. So like… Yo tengo sandwiches, ya dig?
It does seem to have hit a popularity moment, though, doesn’t it? And why do we, the collective outsiders, want in to this holiday so badly? Easy answer is that it resonates with everyone I’ve ever run across who knows anything about it. A celebration of our beloved dead? To laugh good naturally in the face of death? Celebrate today for tomorrow you die… but make it festive and joyful while you’re here? Uh yeah, that’s just bitchin’.
Western and European cultures just don’t have a place for our dead outside of grief. Certainly as I’ve accumulated more and more beloved and important dead over the years this has come into sharper and sharper relief. And so, especially after an actually beautifully done Disney movie about it, Dia de los Muertos is EVERYWHERE. When your holiday’s imagery makes it onto a plastic tablecloth at Walmart, you know you’ve made it… but I don’t begrudge it at all if you’re actually not a fan of that in the slightest.
But this right here? This is the very slippery slope of differences between Cultural Appropriation and Appreciation/ Participation. I’ve thought long and hard about this one- because another white colonization of not land this time but traditions is NOT what I’m going for here, but I don’t blame anyone if the handling in the populace at large so far leaves something to be desired. And as a cultural anthropologist who is Irish and doesn’t care who celebrates St. Patrick’s Day… and also actually really identify with the culture after so joyfully throwing myself into it 20 years ago and being welcomed by my husband’s family, you’d think I’d be a little blithe about the whole thing. But rest assured I am not; I tread very lightly here, as is right for me to do.
So, as I see it, here are the differences between doing it right as an outsider… and not. (Also- this is up for interpretation from anyone, and the lines between these are different for everyone and also often blur…)
Cultural Appreciation: Admiring something in another culture while still acknowledging where it comes from- be it dress, fashion, music, art, food, tradition, etc.
Cultural Participation: When you want to join in WITH the other culture. Make the food, sing the songs, celebrate the holidays. When you do it with sense of respect and learning and with a real acknowledgment of who it’s with, the history involved, or where it comes from.
Cultural Appropriation: When you want to take something from the other culture, strip it of all previous connection, and make it entirely your own. Indian headdress for Halloween, Redskins football, blonde cornrows with a 90’s satin slip dress, or Dia de los Muertos themed plasticware at the grocery store or sugar skull makeup so you can post the picture on Instagram.
It’s subtle differences, and we the outsiders in these scenarios DON’T get to pick where the offensiveness line is. But if you go with good intentions, if you come to learn, to join hands with… if you are not there to replace but to celebrate, you stand a better shot of not stepping on toes. (5 paragraphs of intro… look at that white guilt fly!)
OKAY. So like, that’s an extremely long way to intro into: we built a really elaborate ofrenda (altar) this year, and I spent a TON of time researching it in the really deep down desire to do it right and do right by Mexican culture, and because I have more honored dead than I can safely keep in my head and heart and I could really use some healing through this. Not to take a sharp turn on ya there on that last one or anything…
So… I did a lot of online research for this. And here is an extensive but not all encompassing list of things I read were important and that we have on ours. Oh- and one last thing- try to do this right not only by intention, but by where you monetarily support as well. If you ARE going to build your own- try to buy goods from Hispanic/ Mexican sources. Don’t give your money to Party City and Walmart! Check Etsy shops, or go to the Mexican parts of your town. It isn’t required, but I think it’s a really important good will gesture. (Full disclosure, I bought the tablecloth on Amazon and frames from TJ Maxx… this isn’t requiring of perfection, but striving for doing the right thing. Try for the 80/20 rule, right?)
Kinda a non-negotiable to have. I went with orange, probably the second most recommended color after white. I’ve seen everything from black to purple to patterned used in pictures and they were all lovely. (One thing I found- you’re gonna have a LOT going on up on the altar, so I decided to go with more solid color aside from the runner I put on the front instead of an allover pattern.)
Multi levels are common but not ubiquitous. There is some symbolism to different levels of reality, the afterlife, Heaven, Earth, and Hell, or places for specific imagery (top for picture of the Virgin Mary, bottom level for candles…). There is no real consensus on this though, and flat ofrendas are reasonably common. Me, I’m a teacher’s pet type personality on stuff like this, so since I read three levels are traditional, I was going to go with with three levels. (Mine are made with books, boards, and picture boxes and then covered with the tablecloth). I didn’t give each level an assigned place/purpose due to space constraints and not being huge on religious imagery due to our own personal beliefs.
The arch, often made from sugar cane, can symbolize crossing over or the transitioning of life to death. I don’t have sugar cane, so we used green bamboo from the garden and decorated it with paper flowers. And I’m going to be honest, it’s a pretty good looking substitute.
Pictures are vital to have on the ofrenda of your lost loved ones- but people do also put important figures in history up (sure Frida Kahlo has MILLIONS of spots on ofrendas). I personally shot for pictures of the dead, kinda in a portrait style and especially without someone who was still living in the picture- but I haven’t seen that listed as any kind of rule. My grandparents and my husband’s grandparents are in pictures of the two of them together, but they are all four deceased. I used similar frames for uniformity but again not required.
Here’s one funny thing though- setting up the pictures on an ofrenda when your grandfather and your Meemaw were divorced, and your uncle wasn’t the biggest fan of said grandfather back in the day… it leads to some quite well thought out picture placement, similar to the seating arrangement at a wedding!
Something the Dead Liked
You’re supposed to put something the people in the pictures enjoyed or that evokes good memories from life. A hobby, something they loved, etc. My Meemaw loved gardening and the ocean, so I have shells and a small plant for her. My husband’s grandmother, gardening: another plant. His grandfather: his actual harmonica. My grandmother: one of her blue birds of happiness blown glass figurines. My grandfather: one of the toy cars he collected. My other grandfather: a pad of paper and pen since he was a journalist. My uncle: some bird feathers since he was an avid bird watcher. And my father-in-law: some chile pequin peppers, a deck of cards, and an acorn (the two year old thought Papa would like it- he’d treasure it… I left it up there) as well as a small cross from the “rebel” middle child who identifies as Christian thanks to said grandfather and her grandmother.
I searched EVERYWHERE this year for a chile pequin plant- I wanted to grow these very small, EXTREMELY hot peppers for the sole intention of putting them on the ofrenda for my father in law. He used to eat them like candy and we had a very memorable event when he talked me into eating one. There was snot and tears (mine) and laughter and tears (his)… it was a good one, for sure. I searched high and low to try to buy one for MONTHS, to no avail. And then I’m mowing the back yard and there is one growing by the back fence in July- right when I’d given up hope of finding one! Thanks birds and/or ghosts/ and/or Jesus!
Because the dead are thirsty after their long journey and sometimes it symbolizes one of the four elements of water, earth, air, and fire.
Tissue paper flags. Sometimes symbolize air or wind, sometimes the ephemeral nature of life, sometimes just god damn cool and one of my favorite things ever. Do it right (notthatI’mtellingyouwhattodooranything) and get the tissue paper ones and not the plastic ones.
Brightly decorated skulls. They symbolize that death is waiting so have fun while you are alive/ don’t take death too seriously/ the dead can still have fun. We searched through a LOT of calaveras before we found the right one… I especially like the birds on it. I didn’t want a crappy, no effort paint job and there were LOTS of those unfortunately. I want to see some artistry on things like this, though, so it was worth the dig. We finally found one that passed the bar for us at el mercado in San Antonio this past weekend. There seems to be some ongoing transitioning between sugar skulls (made from sugar) and calaveras- generally pottery skulls. I had a toddler I can’t trust with pressed sugar sculptures so went with a pottery version.
Important, perhaps related to Catholic beliefs on the lighting of candles and prayer. Also symbolize the element of fire. Right now I only have two, but often a candle is lit for each person on the ofrenda. I’m waiting on a six pack of small silver and gold mercury glass votives to come from a (latina!) Etsy vendor. Trying to do right, just trying to do right… The purple ones in the picture my friend got for me; they’re heavy soapstone and I think they’re a nice addition. Candles are also used as a light to guide the dead home.
Purifier. Element of Earth. Generally keeps demons away in many other cultures but I didn’t find that written about in my research for Dia de los Muertos or anything but it can’t be a bad secondary use.
Snacks for the dead, often their favorite dish to serve as a reminder of good memories from their life. They don’t eat it but appreciate the smell/essence. I don’t plan on leaving food up nightly, we’ll put it out on the actual holiday. Interestingly enough, the food from the alter doesn’t have to be up long, and isn’t considered tainted from the dead enjoying it’s essence. (There is a traditional bread, Pan de Muertos I’ll do a separate post on because I’m going to try to make it.)
Probably should have talked about this in that mammoth intro up there- but I use: Dia de los Muertos and not Dia de Muertos when referring to the holiday. Both are correct as far as I can find.
Orange Marigolds (cempasuchil or flor de muertos)
I started growing 3′ Mexican Marigolds back in April from seed for use on the ofrenda in November… this has been a months long plan. Unfortunately all I could find was a mixed bag of seeds, with two colors of orange and bright yellow all mixed together. I had a whole section of the garden dedicated to them… which the dog dug up once it was too late to replant. But ONE plant survived! I coddled it back to health and it finally bloomed this week… and it’s god damn yellow. I’ll buy some orange ones as we get closer to November 1st- for petals to line the front walk to the alter and for flowers on the ofreda itself. They are THE flower of the dead and the pungent smell helps lead the dead home.
NOT an important part of this holiday, regardless of how the movie Coco made it seem! But I collect them and love them and so will put them on our ofrenda. Words cannot describe the research I put into these- alebrijes are like, in the top 3 of my very favorite crafts/arts. I have 5 books (including one that actually has a picture of Innocente Melchor Garcia- the artist who made my deer!) and I DREAM of a trip to Oaxaca to see and learn more about them. I will forever regret not buying a piece from Jacobo y Maria Angeles from the last time we were in Mexico. It was a white and black coyote, and I can still picture it perfectly and feel it’s weight and shape in my hands… Alright sure. It was $1,700 and so it would have been insanity to buy it. But even so… I sent an email to the store months later, just because I couldn’t stop thinking about it… but it was gone. Agh. So yeah, you don’t need these… I guess I’m just testing you? You passed.
Never having smoked weed I was never a big fan of incense (or black light posters). But the smoke from copal incense is said to purify the souls of the dead during Dia de los Muertos. Copal is the wood alebrijes are made from. Just fyi from an alebrijes nerd. I have the incense stick in the lantern on the right bottom of the ofenda.
Dogs are important as guides to and from the other side. The very long history on this one is based on the xoloitzcuintle dog breed: a black, nearly hairless dog that dates back to ancient times. Jude here will have to do though, she was a good dog- I’m sure she’ll fulfill her role admirably. Also, odd as it is, there is another dog in the alter since in my uncle’s he’s petting a black poodle that just kinda showed up for the picture. I love the idea it was like “Just here to take the picture so I can be your spirit guide in 20 years- don’t mind me!”
For us we’ve put the ofrenda up for the whole month of October- though the real holiday is November 1st and 2nd. The 1st is for deceased children, the 2nd for deceased adults- thats when the liquor makes it’s way to the ofrenda. You know, question there- if you have a recovered alcoholic, do you put liquor out? Or not? Now we’re asking the real questions…
The entire holiday is cast in a celebratory light. Tears are supposed to make the path back slippery for the dead, so happiness that you had your loved ones, not tears because they are gone is the right mindset to have… it’s what I’m certainly shooting for.