Yreina Flores Ortiz is the papel picado artist behind Ay Mujer!. When she’s not favoriting everything on Instagram, she’s cutting some of the 50,000-plus feet of banners her business produces every year.
Día de Los Muertos (or “Day of the Dead”) is a sacred Mexican celebration with a history that stretches back to Mexico’s indigenous roots. During this holiday, it is believed that the spirits of the dead can return to be among the living. This ancient cultural acceptance of death has brought about many beautiful and playful depictions of the dead – from decorative sugar skulls and dancing skeletons to handpainted paper maché figurines and more – but they aren’t just decorations, and they are not to be confused with Halloween. Instead, they make up the elements of an altar: a destination for our beloved departed to visit on Day of the Dead, which starts November 1 at midnight.
Whether or not you believe in the spirits of the dead coming to visit, making a home altar is a wonderful opportunity to gather with loved ones to share old stories, reflect, listen to music, and connect with the past. While there are many approaches to building an altar (in Mexico, traditions vary by region), there is truly no wrong way to make one, as long as you make it with love. The more personal and meaningful your altar, the more authentic it becomes.
For those unfamiliar with this ritual, I’ll walk you through the process. Let’s get started!
Step 1: Choose a Place For the Altar
Ideally, you’ll position the altar in a central spot, like a living room or kitchen. Make sure the place you choose has room for photos, flowers, candles and other objects. A small table, bookshelf or mantel is great, but it’s really about using what you have – a nice tablecloth or swatch of fabric can transform an altar base made from buckets, cardboard boxes or furniture. If the only space you have for your altar is the ground, then spread out a pretty blanket and get to work.
Step 2: Gather Photos and Personal Relics
I love this part of the process! Each year as fall comes around (and sometimes even before then), I think about who I want to learn more about, and who I still need pictures of. This year, my nino (godfather), who passed away 14 years ago, has been in the forefront of my mind. Recently, I sat down with my parents and went through photo albums to find more pictures of him. With every found image came a story I hadn’t heard before; it was very therapeutic and healing for all of us.
Step 3: Collect Some Symbolic Offerings
Of course, you can add any item to your altar that you want. Some traditional offerings on Day of the Dead altars include: bright and festive marigolds, which are believed to “shine a light” so the dead know where to go; lit candles and fire, which represent the souls themselves; water (in an open container) to quench thirst from the long journey; fruit; salt, sage, and copal, which is believed to purify the spirits; papel picado, or cut-paper decorations (make your own here) that represent wind. Other common items are Pan de muerto or bread of the dead, which is a sweet bread that provides sustenance, and handpainted sugar skulls or homemade food (prepared using an old family recipe). While planning the altar for my nino this year, I learned that he won a menudo cook-off back in the day, so I’ll also be putting a bowl of menudo on my altar for him!
Step 4: Arrange Your Altar
Composition-wise, there are no rules. I like to keep mine symmetrically balanced — but that’s just a personal thing. Be sure to take your time setting out all the items you’ve collected, savoring the ritual of remembrance. Also: you can never have too many flowers — and they don’t have to be marigolds. (I use a lot of roses because they were my grandma’s favorite.) If you have picture frames for your photos, great; if you just have snapshots grabbed out of an old photo album, that’s fine, too.
One of the best parts of building an altar is sharing the photos and relics with family. For me, I especially love including my daughter, who may not have met the people we are honoring. I have her participate so she can learn the faces of her ancestors. I will hold up a photo and ask “Who is this?”
“Great grandpa Lencho,” she’ll say, even though he passed when she was just a baby.
Photos by Yreina Flores Ortiz.