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On Day of the Dead, altars are a chance for believers to connect with the departed

The deeply personal memorials honor and bring traditions from Mexico to the U.S., passing them on to future generations.
Jannelle Calderon
Jannelle Calderon

Angela Diaz’s family has once again joined together to build altars, ofrendas, in order to remember loved ones and prominent public figures for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead).

For the last six years, they have made 10 foot by 10 foot, seven-tiered altars remembering artists such as Selena, Frida Kahlo and Vicente Fernández for the community to appreciate at events for the holiday. 

“My mother's grandmother taught her, my grandmother taught us [grandchildren],” Diaz said in a Spanish language interview. “We try to give it the traditional touch, but also give it the personal touch, because it means a lot to us.”

Día de Muertos, which takes place Nov. 1 and 2, is celebrated through several large community events in Las Vegas. The Mexican tradition honors the deceased and is based on the belief that their souls temporarily return to the world of the living to visit family members. 

Altars often incorporate specific elements that have certain meanings — salt representing purification, water to quench the thirst of souls after their long journeys, candles to guide them back home and incense or copal to cleanse. Cempasúchil, or marigolds, are the primary symbol of the celebration and represent the sun. Ofrendas also include portraits of the people being remembered, along with their favorite food or fruits and pan de muerto (sweet bread covered in sugar). 

“We try to stick to the tradition as much as possible,” Diaz said, adding that the most important thing for her is connecting with family and keeping the tradition alive. “Being Mexican is something that I am proud to be. So, for me, passing on these traditions or teaching a little bit of the culture of Mexico is important.”

Diaz said making an altar at home might be at a smaller scale, but remembering loved ones is what matters. 

“Start somewhere,” Diaz said. “Start on a table, put the basic elements, for example, the photo of the person who died, their favorite foods, their favorite drinks, put flowers. And every year, if you want to change it, you can make it bigger or modify it.”

Isaac Delgado made his first altar as an adult the year his father died as a way to get closure because he had been unable to go back to his hometown in Mexico to say goodbye. 

This is his sixth year participating in the Life in Death Festival held at the Winchester-Dondero Cultural Center. The altars there have become a creative outlet for Delgado, who has experimented with papier-mâché and UV light-activated glow paint to combine tradition and art.   

“I try to put out something that people haven't seen, because we have so much culture in Mexico that is not always seen over here,” Delgado said in Spanish.

He added that it is important for him to showcase culture and traditions for young Mexican-Americans so they don’t lose touch with their roots, especially for kids including his stepchildren who may not show interest in learning about the customs — at first. Delgado brings his youngest stepson, who’s 13, to events and talks about the traditions to curious event-goers in his enthusiasm for the occasion.

Though he takes some artistic liberty in his altars, Delgado takes the tradition to heart in order to honor his loved ones who have passed. 

“It is a very personal thing to do for a person. It’s the experience of connecting with them and honoring them. This year we had several deaths in the family, including my first cousin who died of cancer,” he said. “One of the most important things is, when you put up an offering, you offer it to the people you once loved and loved you. That's the best part.”


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