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How to make an ofrenda for Día de Los Muertos

On Día de Los Muertos, we welcome back the souls of our loved ones who passed on. Typically we would celebrate with our loved ones still here on earth, but out of caution to keep our friends and family safe and healthy, these gatherings might be a little smaller this year. Despite downsizing, we carry on traditions, like creating ofrendas. From a small ofrenda the size of a shoebox, to a large ornate display, the choice is yours to personalize and make meaningful to you. Below we have outlined how to make your very own. 

What You Need

  • A table or flat surface to build your altar
  • Two long sugar cane stalks (or other material) to make an arch
  • Boxes or crates to create different levels
  • A tablecloth
  • Papel picado
  • A photo of the person(s) to whom the altar is dedicated
  • A glass of water
  • Flowers, preferably marigolds
  • Baby’s breath 
  • Salt
  • Fruit, pan de muerto, and other foods loved ones enjoyed can also be placed
  • Calaveras and catrinas
  • Candles and incense 
  • Items that the person you’re honoring enjoyed in life

Purpose of items

  • Arch: To represent entry into the world of the dead
  • Levels: 2 levels symbolize the division between sky and earth. 3 represent the sky, earth and underworld. 
  • Water: To quench a spirit’s thirst after a long journey 
  • Photos: To draw the spirit and help them cross over 
  • Marigolds: The pungent marigolds help the souls find us.
  • Baby’s breath: This flower honors children who have passed.
  • La Catrina: protector of the departed
  • Calaveras are traditionally made of sugar and represent the sweetness of life
  • Candles: To guide the spirits back to us
  • Incense: To purify souls and ward off evil spirits
  • Salt: To keep the souls from being corrupted by temptations
  • Papel picado: To symbolize the fragility of life. Also, the holes allow a way for the souls to visit

Steps

  • Set up the foundation of your altar and decide how many levels you’ll have.
  • Decorate! Here you’ll place all the above items around the altar foundation and on the different levels. 
  • Add food and drink
  • Light candles when it comes time to commemorate
  • Enhance your altar based on personal spirituality or tradition

This year, Culturas would like to honor those that have died due to COVID-19, police brutality,  and transphobia. We specifically eulogize the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Their deaths sparked a watershed moment in not only the Black Lives Matter movement, but in America’s reckoning with race. We honor their memories by understanding that they, like the hundreds of thousands who have died from COVID-19 and dozens of trans people murdered, should not have died. By continuously shouting their stories and remembering their legacy, we can keep others from dying. We can unconditionally accept each and every human as worthy of life. We will not forget. 

Sonia Smith-Kang contributed to this guide. 

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Haley Bosselmanhttps://haleybosselman.wordpress.com/
Haley Bosselman is the former editor-in-chief of Culturas. She holds degrees in journalism from Arizona State University and the University of Southern California. Based in Los Angeles, she writes about arts, entertainment and culture.
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