September 24 – November 13, 2022
This community-centered exhibition celebrates the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, a festive time for remembering deceased loved ones and ancestors. Ancient civilizations throughout Latin America honored death as an essential part of the life cycle. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, these rituals merged with Catholic observances of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days on November 1 and 2. Modern Day of the Dead celebrations blend both cultures and continue to evolve, adapting new traditions as the holiday grows in popularity on both sides of the border.
Our exhibition features memorial altars or ofrendas, places to leave offerings so the souls of the departed might find their way home and be nourished upon their arrival. Symbolic objects like sugar skulls, candles, colorful cut-tissue paper banners, bold marigolds, and monarch butterflies fill a gallery in celebration. Evolving from altars built in the home to honor deceased loved ones, altars in public spaces are often constructed in remembrance of those who have died for a cause or as a result of injustice.
We invite artists, families, and community groups around the region to honor a lost loved one or other important figure by constructing an altar in the museum. Apply by August 29 for consideration. Those selected for exhibition will be notified by September 2.
If you would like to honor a loved one without constructing an altar, contribute to our Community Altar! Details on how to participate coming soon.
What is el día de los muertos (The Day of the Dead)?
Toward the end of October and the beginning of November, a certain love begins to stir in the hearts of indigenous communities of Mexico. A celebration, a feast, a remembrance filled with joy and care enters homes and communities as el día de los muertos is observed. For indigenous communities of Mexico, the day commemorates a yearly ritual of remembering loved ones who have passed away, and exist as spirits just beyond the earthly realm. For aboriginal communities, there is a kinship obligation to loved ones that remains unbroken even after death. During the festivities that take place at the end of October and beginning of November (a period that coincides with the completion of the maize cultivation cycle), indigenous families believe that the spirits of their loved ones can return by their side if they facilitate their homecoming by engaging in specific rituals: visiting their place of rest, laying a path of flowers from the cemetery to their homes, lighting candles. In addition, families honor the memory of their departed loved ones by dedicating a space in the home just for them—the space is an altar or a memorial that includes food, crafts, articles of belonging, pictures, and flowers, among other things. These objects reinforce memory because family members remember their loved ones; for example, what foods they ate, what articles they wore, or the favorite drink. Stories are told about them too so as to not forget. These actions also reinforce connection across generations as new family members learn about those who have preceded them. Great care is given to this ritual of remembering because in the process the loved ones are reunited for a period of time. It is important to understand that this sense of kinship responsibility conveys the cultural value of family—cherished, respected, and honored across time and forms of existence. In this way, love is a bond reinstated by memory and ritual.
In 2008, this indigenous festivity was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Do only indigenous communities celebrate El día de los muertos?
No. In Mexico, people observe the day across the country. These people vary in racial and religious affiliations. They also can observe it in a variety of ways. For example, Catholics observe the Solemnity of All Saints on November 1st, and All Souls’ Day on November 2 by visiting cemeteries, laying flowers, and attending mass. In addition, Mexican American families in the United States also observe the Holiday.
Do only Mexicans observe El día de los muertos?
No. Many cultures have rituals for observing the memory of loved ones who have passed away. In Latin America and Spain, Catholicism influenced the manner that this remembrance is carried out. But in general people visit cemeteries and bring flowers.
Is El día de los muertos a worship of the dead and in conflict with Christian practice?
It is important to always consider the intent of those who observe El día de los muertos. In general, people are simply trying to establish a loving connection with their loved ones who have passed way. Universally all people experience the loss of a loved one at some point in their life. The manner that people react to the loss is defined by personal need, religious belief, and cultural practice. Some cultures do not talk about their deceased loves ones because it hurts too much. Others talk about their loved ones often in order to remain connected with them, to not forget them, to keep them close to mind and heart.
What are the elements of the memorial or altar?
The altar is a dedication to a loved one and in general reflects a family expression, so it is “right” as long as it reflects the love and devotion of a loved one remembering their dearly departed. Nonetheless, you may use the following as a guide to build an altar.
The altar has various levels. At the top, there is a spiritual or religious image, such as a cross or a picture of a Saint. The next level down includes candles and lights. The next level can include offerings, such as sugar skulls, pan de muerto, and salt. The next level would include the image of the dearly departed. These can be surrounded by candles and marigolds. You may also include objects that belonged to the person who passed away. And the bottom level of the altar you can add marigolds and papel picado. Often, altars are colorful and include images of death and life. These remind us that life and death coexist with each other. As such, the color reminds of the joys of reunion provided by our memory.
Specific elements included in altars:
Thank you to PFW Associate Professor of Spanish Karla Zepeda for her contributions to this information!