Before my father’s death three years ago, I didn’t ‘celebrate’ Día De
Los Muertos. I didn’t know enough about it as my family didn’t build altars or gave much of a second thought to it growing up. There was a period in my life where I was ashamed of my heritage. Sometimes those phrases and stereotypes that permeate the airwaves does get to people like me, who are too American when I visit México, and too Mexican as an American.
I could go on about that, but instead, I’ll fast forward to three years ago when I saw my cousin build an altar to pay homage to our deceased family members, one, in particular, unexpectedly made the list that year. I went looking for DIYs, articles, and I asked family members who offered some help. I became overwhelmed quickly and thought to myself how I wasn’t going to have enough time or money to build an altar that I could make my family proud. I was just overthinking the whole thing!
I’d like to take the moment to explain one thing and one thing only. Día De
Los Muertos IS NOT the Latin American version of Halloween. It is a time of remembrance (Oct. 31st – Nov. 2nd) to those we have lost. Also, there isn’t a wrong way to make an altar. Is there a traditional way? Sure, but if you are putting something together to pay your respects to your ancestors, how could that be wrong? They can get pretty elaborate, or like mine that is small but effective.
Here’s a link to a blog post by Lesley Téllez at The Mija Chronicles on how to build your own altar. You can also find recipes for pan de muerto, champurrado, and other traditional fares.
I wonder if my local mercado has any tamales, atole, or champurrado? Until then, here are some pictures of my altar. It changes slightly each year. This time around I opted to use my bookcases since I’ve used the other storage space in a different part of the house. I made the papel picado the same way I made snowflakes in kindergarten, this time however using bright colors like teal, green, orange, yellow and red. I made a banner using twine and some scotch tape. Here’s a link to free printables from Pinata.com
I’ve heard Día De Los Muertos all of my life here in the U.S., so when my cousin in México made his altar with papel picado that read Día De Muertos, I went to investigate. Sure enough, the CORRECT phrase is Día De Muertos. Think of it this way in French we wouldn’t say “de + les”, right? It’s just des. Same concept. It’s an honest mistake, but now you and I both know. These are little things that even I a native Spanish speaker am still learning. Living in California you get all sorts of Spanglish and unfortunately it sticks. My mom still says el parking lot, and no matter how many times I try to correct her with estacionamiento, it’s just how she communicates. Pick your battles.
This year I opted for a kitchen counter. My two bookcases can no longer hold the altar contents. Besides I was always afraid of knocking a candle over. I also have the option of leaving food and water for my loved ones. My cousin Carlos who lives in México got creative and built a tiered altar. He has an owl and small trinkets to represent each person. His is more traditional, but there isn’t a wrong way to pay tribute to the dead.