How Ofrendas Honor the Dead on Dia de los Muertos

As the popularity of Dia de los Muertos has grown, so too has the ubiquity of “ofrendas,” altars honoring the dead.

But their popularity has not lessened their meaning, especially in a world craving the rituals lost during the pandemic.

Ofrendas are an essential part of the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos. The altars are set up to honor and remember the memory of a relative who has died.

As José González, the executive director of Portland’s Milagro Latino arts and culture center, explained to Portland Monthly, the altars are a place to welcome those who have died, “If someone has meaning to you, this is an opportunity to revisit that meaning and celebrate their life.”

The altars include gifts of photos, candles, incense, salt, water, fruit, Catholic virgins and saints, marigolds and “bread of the dead,” Pan de Muerto. The ofrendas also may contain some of the deceased’s favorite foods and items to honor their memory or recall their habits. Each item has a symbolic meaning, for example, fire helps guide the spirit to their final resting place.

On the West Coast and Southwest, the holiday has become increasingly popular, perhaps even more so than in Mexico where it began. Many non-profits and art organizations host community events where the public can participate, often adding their tributes to the work of professional artists.

This year, near Seattle, the Bainbridge Island Art Museum will be presenting its eighth annual Dia de los Muertos Ofrenda display. Artist Araceli Cruz has created a multi-tiered shrine in collaboration with Cynthia Sears and Alice Mendozato to which the public can add mementos of their loved ones.

“It is so beautiful to watch the exhibit transform and by the end of the week be adorned with so many pictures, trinkets, flowers, candles and love notes. The space has a sense of reverence and honor to it. You can feel the love in the space, it’s that special,” Cruz tells Solace.

Cruz says the holiday is about connection, “To create a space in your home set aside to honor and remember those you love can bring peace, and a sense of connection. It can feel celebratory and offers an opportunity to share memories and stories. This is what keeps their memories with us because we pass on their stories. We stay connected.”

In Los Angeles, for the 48th year, Self Help Graphics and Art hosts an in-person Dia de los Muertos event that includes a car caravan, art exhibits, a procession and bike caravan.

San Diego has both online and in-person events including gatherings at local parks and a procession to the El Campo Cemetery where the public can add their own memories to a large ofrenda display.

In Portland, Milagro will “explore the topic of rebirth and renewal, commemorated with altars, crafts workshops, concerts, poetry readings, a Día de Muertos documentary, and showings of Muertos productions of the past.” Springfield and Eugene also have events planned to mark the holiday.

Artist Cruz says the ofrenda offers a way of honoring those “who are no longer with us physically, but very much in our hearts and minds” in “a special act of reverence anyone can do.” She says her artwork represents “death as a non-permanent state, but rather a transformation of energy and existence. Leading back to the idea that our loved ones never truly leave us.”

If you are interested in creating your own ofrenda, Adelante Mujeres, a nonprofit organization helping Latina women in Oregon, has a 7-step guide online.

Images courtesy of Northwest artist, Araceli Cruz

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