HOUSTON, TX -- It has been years since the deaths of Magdalena Cervantes's uncle and nephew. But she says the love she has for them is very much alive. “I am going to make an altar, and I want to remember my nephew Albert and my uncle Ray,” says Cervantes, as her eyes tear up and her voice begins to break.
Magdalena has been attending a series of workshops held every year to commemorate the “Día de Muertos," or "Day of the Dead” at Casa Ramírez, a gallery and Mexican folk art store in Houston, Texas. It’s at this time of the year that the location is adorned with several altares (shrines or altars) – richly embellished with marigold flowers, colorful paper ornaments, sugar skulls called “calaveritas,” foods and even alcoholic beverages.
“But it is not just ornaments,” explains Macario Ramírez, a fixture in Houston’s art scene and owner of Casa Ramírez. “They tell a story, and that is what I tell my people when I teach the making of a shrine."
Ramírez says there should be no confusion between Halloween and el Día de los Muertos. The first one has evolved into a festivity where people enjoy dressing up, getting spooked and collecting treats. The second one honors and celebrates the life of loved ones who have died.
“The Day of the Dead, remembering loved ones, goes back to Aztec times, los Aztecas, los Toltecs, los Zapotecs,” says Ramírez in his characteristic way of weaving both English and Spanish in his conversations.
The eve of Día de los Muertos, on November 1st, is when the “angelitos” (little angels) or the spirits of children who have passed, descend. November 2nd is when the spirit of the adults follow.
“Los cielos se abren, (the heavens open) and the spirits come down from heaven to be with us and we receive them,” says Ramirez.
The altar "receives" those who have passed with their favorite foods, drinks and even some of their personal belongings.
The construction of an altar starts with a table covered with a white cloth, representing purity. Once that is in place, explains Ramirez, the creation of an altar requires the elements that constitute the universe.
“It is the wind, the water, fire and earth. That is almost the whole universe. That is what it is composed of," Ramirez says.
The wind is represented with the paper ornaments called “papel picado” since it moves with the wind. The water, according to Ramirez, has a dual meaning.
“Water can be included with a glass of water because the spirits are thirsty when they are coming down. The water can also be seen as cleansing, as a ‘limpia.”
The fire is represented by candles, which also symbolize the lighting of the path for the souls and the burning of copal, a natural resin used as incense.
Other crucial elements in the altar are the marigold flower, or cemasuchil - a bright orange blossom similar to a chrysanthemum symbolizing the sun - and the placement of bread of the dead, or “pan de muerto,” a round baked good with cross bones as decorations. The fruits can either be part of the favorite foods of the deceased though they also symbolize a harvest.
“Sometimes,” says Magdalena Cervantes, “I think you focus on the mourning and the loss and you forget the little things, like the molcajete (a stone mortar and pestle). To me, when you think of grandma, you think of the molcajete.”
Expressing love to long departed loved ones, says Ramirez, is exactly the emotion that makes each altar unique. “So, this connects you better with the memories and the spirits and if you really get into it, you can almost feel the presence of your ancestors.”
Whether divine or not, most of those who build this type of altar will definitely feel closer to their departed loved one, if just for one night. And even though the celebration is called Day of the Dead, it’s their loved ones lives that they are celebrating.