Our first & last ofrenda

Though the culture of Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is something I’ve always loved and admired, I’ve never actually really participated. My husband is Salvadoran and his family more commonly calls it “Día de los Difuntos”, (Day of the Deceased.)

He says that in El Salvador on November 2nd, you visit your deceased family members in the cemetery. You spend the day there, cleaning the grave, or paying others to repaint the name. The grave can be decorated with flowers, though he says offerings of food are rarely left because people don’t want to waste it. Sometimes priests walk around and a donation can be given for a prayer.

The day sounds less festive in El Salvador than it is in Mexico, and for this reason, the day has usually passed in our family with nothing more than a candle being lit for Carlos’s father, who died when he was younger. (Not to mention my youngest son’s birthday happens to fall on “Día de Los Muertos”, so we’re usually busy celebrating that.)

This year I wanted to make an altar called an “ofrenda”, (“offering”), Mexican-style. Carlos says this really isn’t done in El Salvador, at least not in his family.

The ofrenda is usually three tiers, signifying the three levels of life: The lowest tier represents the earth, the second tier is the in-between, and the third tier at the top is the after-life or Heaven.

There are various traditional objects which are often placed on ofrendas such as papel picado, flowers, candles, calaveras (decorative skulls, sometimes made of sugar), bread, salt, water, personal items such as jewelry, photos, favorite beverages and foods, etc.

I wanted to celebrate the holiday but my father’s side of the family is Jewish and my mother’s side of the family are Anglo-Protestants. I can’t imagine either side of the family would have wished to be remembered in this way, and so out of respect, I don’t make an ofrenda for my loved ones who have passed.

I decided to make an ofrenda to honor Carlos’s father, the man who would have been my Suegro. Along with his father’s photo and his ring, I placed a few religious items as he was Catholic, along with candles, incense and a few decorations. For food offerings, I remember Suegra saying he loved casamiento, so I put a bowl of rice and beans on the ofrenda as well.

Carlos said he appreciated the gesture and that the ofrenda was beautiful but then he gently asked me if I would mind taking it down. The sight of the ofrenda made him sad instead of happy, which was not my intention. Sadness is also not in the spirit of Día de Los Muertos. Day of the Dead is supposed to be about celebration of life, not mourning of death, but Carlos says that he has never liked the holiday, even back in El Salvador.

So, the ofrenda is no more, and what I hoped would be a new family tradition is not possible. I completely understand Carlos’s feelings and though I regret making him sad, I’m thankful our boys had a chance to think about and learn a little about the man who would have been their Abuelo, but never had a chance to be.

20 thoughts on “Our first & last ofrenda

  1. Tracy, what a beautiful description of this sometimes misunderstood celebration. I applaud you for creating and dismantling the ofrenda, all in the name of love. Today I light a candle for all the souls who’s candle was not lit.

  2. That is why I love reading your blog Tracy, such an honest perspective and respect for our culture is reflected on your blog.

    As you already know, there are so many other traditions you can weave into the fabric of your family life…many that will bring joy to your family.

    Gracias for sharing your experience.

  3. I learned about the holiday when I was in college. Although my mom saw it celebrated while growing up in Mexico, she never taught us about the tradition. Sometimes remembering your loved ones can be bittersweet. I think the holiday helps celebrate the persons’ life rather than mourn it but I totally understand why your husband asked you to take it down. Thank you for teaching me a bit more about this misunderstood day.

  4. I think it takes time to re adapt your feelings. Like Carlos, Nov 2nd is not a happy day for me. When I was younger (and living in El Salvador) we spent the entire day in the cemetery. It was like a very sad pick-nick (lots of food but also lots of tears), and believe me, I have tried really hard to put those sad memories behind. Have I succeeded? Not 100% percent but I am getting there. I love/loved my “difuntos” too much, so they deserve to be remembered with happiness.

  5. Very nice and well written, Tracy. I’ve often discussed this sadness that Carlos expressed with others about Dia de Los Muertos. Sometimes we don’t want to be reminded with a visible ofrenda. And sometimes it’s just that which helps someone make a breakthrough. Either way, it’s a very personal devotional moment for the individual. I’ve spoken to some who experience a sadness not just for their loved one but for times they miss from their youth or from their homeland.

    And like any other holiday, feelings can be mixed. Why do so many get depressed at Christmas time?

    However, I find joy in your post and your observance of the day. I am putting my altar together this evening and I have a bittersweet feeling about it, but it does bring a smile to my heart.

  6. Hola Tracy,

    I can completely understand. I set up an altar (for the first time) in our home a couple of days ago for mi abuelita. I could tell that my American hubby was completely confused and intrigued at the same time. After educating him about the holiday he is now very supportive and we look forward to lighting candles this evening and sharing stories with our children. You are a very thoughtful person to want to honor your suegro in such a wonderful way. Maybe you can try again next year?

  7. Wow- powerful. I have to admit before I even read the post- I saw the altar and the picture and I had a feeling what it was- and I got a pit in my stomach of sadness- and I didn’t know him- so I can imagine it might have made Carlos sad too. I guess it depends on the culture- and if you were raised for this to be a celebratory thing- then it will be but otherwise it acn be sad. For the record, I think that its good to “celebrate” it if you can culturally- its a healthier way to look back on those we lose and the circle of life which unfortunatley also includes death- but I live in a culture that tries to pretend death just doesn’t exist, where we try to sweep aging under the rug with botox and plastic surgery for those who can afford to do it. . . so I guess for me this sort of thing is depressing- though it shouldn’t be as its accepting life in its entirety.

  8. My late Father’s birthday was October 30th. Sometimes in my childhood it would get forgotten in the excitement of Halloween. But ever since he’s been gone, it is always a day of reflection with sad “what-if”s and painful memories of his long illness and self pity for my personal loss. I would love to say that I could have happy thoughts and make it a day of the dead festival atmosphere instead but I can’t force it. There are other holidays and seasons that I have the happy memories. So I get where Carlos is coming from there.

    I’m sure he agrees that it was sweet of you to put forth the effort.

  9. The whole month of October is turning into a month for remembering lost loved ones in my house. Carlos is lucky to have such a thoughtful and caring wife.

  10. Thank you for sharing this. La Ofrenda salio muy bonita. In Italy (where my family’s from) there are a lot of traditions surrounding death and lost loved ones, but I’m not sure how close they come to Latino traditions. I know my grandpa keeps my grandma’s ashes on something very similar to what you made. (“attached” to my name is a picture) There have been a lot of deaths in the family these past few years. Tomorrow I think I’ll ask my Suegro if he wants to make an ofrenda.

    Thank you again.

    • @ Rimbambo – That’s a very nice little reminder of your grandmother. Thanks for linking the photo. It is sort of like an altar or ofrenda.

      I’m sorry for so many deaths in your family the past few years. It’s never easy, but to have many in a short amount of time is even more difficult.

      I hope your Suegro likes the idea of making an ofrenda and it helps you remember happy memories of your loved ones.

  11. very interesting Tracy. I do admire the way this day makes people happy. i’ve never done it but I did experience it in mexico. I understand your husband too. You are right, that was great that your kids were able to experience it!

  12. What a beautiful ofrenda. I wanted to do something similar in our house this year. I never celebrated that holiday and with all the caos around Halloween, I thought it would be great to do something that would have true meaning for our family. All of my parents and grandparents have passed on, and my husband’s grandpa. So I thought the kids would enjoy making these popsicle skeletons I found online and then decorating them with things that each person liked. Kind of like the ofrenda but more arts and crafty. The kids seemed to like the activity, and I enjoyed thinking about my family and trying to remember what they were like.
    My husband, like yours, was quick to point out that that was a Mexican decoration…they don’t hang calaveras in Bolivia.

  13. That is so sad, but I can also understand your husband’s point of view. It is hard for many to have a day to CELEBRATE those that have passed. Most places like to mourn and it can be painful to be reminded of someone they so dearly loved.

    This was the first time I also made an Altar and ofrenda for my abuelitos. Something I never had done before. The kids got to see some beautiful things that their would have been bisabuelos liked. It was a nice experience and I hope to continue it from now on.

  14. I just want to say thank you for all the thoughtful comments left here. Thank you for sharing such personal stories with me and for your kind words. Abrazos.

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