Unexpected Ofrenda

Last year I made what I ended up calling our “First and last ofrenda.” … Eager to start a new tradition on a holiday as beautiful as Día de los Muertos, I made an altar for Carlos’s father without realizing that Carlos grew up in a country, (El Salvador), that, for the most part, doesn’t take part in the type of Day of the Dead festivities you usually think of when you think about November 2nd.

In El Salvador, Carlos explained, Day of the Dead, or “Día de los Difuntos” as I hear his family call it, is a somber day to go to the cemetery, clean the graves of loved ones, decorate the graves with flowers, have names repainted on the tombstone, and maybe stick around for a quiet picnic. Unlike Mexico, or neighboring Guatemala, El Salvador doesn’t really celebrate Day of the Dead with fun parties.

Being that Carlos wasn’t comfortable having an altar for his father, I thought this was one tradition that just wasn’t meant to be for our family, but my boys had other ideas.

“Aren’t you going to make an ofrenda this year? I liked that tradition,” my older son asked.

“I liked it too but it made Daddy unhappy to have an altar for his father so we shouldn’t make one this year.”

“But we can make a different one. I’d like to have one for Ginger,” he said, referring to the family dog we put down over the summer.

“Can you have an ofrenda for a dog?” he asked, “Cause they have spirits, too.”

I agreed, and so that is why I made an ofrenda for Ginger this evening, instead of working on various other things I was supposed to be doing.

Ginger liked to chase rabbits that would slip under the fence right before she caught them – though I would bet money that had she ever caught one, she wouldn’t have known what to do with it – I think she just wanted to play. She was a tall German Shepherd mix who played gentle with all creatures smaller than herself – from other dogs, to cats, and even babies.

We adopted her from the Humane Society and it seemed like she always remembered that and thanked us for it. She didn’t know any fancy tricks – just the basics – but she was bilingual – responding to commands in both English and Spanish. We jokingly called her “Jengibre” since “Ginger” is the name she came with and I wanted to give her a Spanish name. Suegra found it disturbing that the dog’s name tag said “Ginger López” – she had never met a dog with a last name before.

Ginger loved to be wherever I was. Even if she was comfortable laying on the other side of the room, all I had to do was make eye contact and she’d get up to come closer to me. She refused to catch a frisbee or play fetch but she loved to play chase, especially if you had a pocketful of breakfast cereal. Her only sin was climbing up on the sofa when no one was home, but she had enough respect to climb down when she heard the keys in the door.

We miss Ginger. She was described by family and neighbors as “a sweetheart.” We hope she’s chasing rabbits in a better place.

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.

Paper Marigolds

Marigolds are the flower used to decorate for Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Latin America. The Marigold is also a popular flower in bloom in gardens in the United States during Autumn.

I decided I wanted to make some, but all crafts for making flowers involved tissue paper, which I never seem to have on hand. What I do have an abundance of is colored construction paper, so I set to work to figure it out. After a few false starts, I finally came up with this method. The result is so nice that I wanted to share it with you so you can make Marigolds with your niños.

Paper Marigolds
(caléndulas de papel)

What you need:

• construction paper (preferably orange colored)
• scissors
• a drinking glass
• a pencil
• a stapler

Use a drinking glass to draw 3 circles on a piece of orange construction paper.

Cut out all 3 circles. (It doesn’t have to be perfect.)

Hold all 3 circles together and fold in half, (so it looks like a little taco.)

Fold in half again. (Now it should be more of a cone shape.)

Place one staple in the pointy end to hold it together.

Cut slits, evenly spaced, into the rounded side. (You will want to cut a little deeper than what you see in the photo.)

Pinch your flower open. Use your fingers to pull the layers apart from each other and shape the petals.

Día de Los Muertos at The National Museum of the American Indian

Some people wouldn’t think that you can find Latin American art and culture at a museum for American Indians, but you can because Latin American culture is a mix of indigenous and Spanish culture. So, until Washington D.C. builds the much needed National Museum of The American Latino, this is a good place to look for a little Latinidad.

While the American Indian museum will have special events specifically for Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), they have many things on display year round.

“Day of the Dead rituals date back thousands of years. Early Mesoamerican peoples saw death as a continuation of life. They believed deceased members of their family could return to them during a month long celebration in late summer.

Spanish colonizers tried and failed to put an end to the ritual. Instead, to integrate it into Christian tradition, they moved its observance to the first two days of November: All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.”

-Printed on a plaque at The National Museum of the American Indian

These women were sewing and I didn’t want to disturb them by snapping photos too closely or interrupt them by asking questions, so I’m not sure of their ethnicity, but their colorful embroidery reminded me very much of Latin America.

Also on display…