En Memoria de Mi
Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — is a holiday celebrated by Mexicans and other cultures on October 31st and November 1st and 2nd. Like Halloween, Day of the Dead takes many of the elements that make death so frightful and uses them for decoration and festivity. Both holidays are favorites of children and entire families, and can involve extensive decorations, costumes, face-painting and parties. A tradition of Day of the Dead that sets it apart from Halloween, however, is the creation of altars to celebrate the lives of those who’ve passed on. Ranging from small personal shrines inside one’s home to massive and elaborate constructs that can take up an entire civic plaza, altar making has become a popular way to celebrate Day of the Dead and honor one’s ancestors. With origins that can be traced back to the Aztecs, altar making is a ritual filled with religious overtones, especially Catholic. My family, while Mexican, was not Catholic, and because public schools at the time we attended didn’t teach about Day of the Dead, we never formed our own altar making tradition. Later, as Mexican pride and cultural sensitivities increased, I was attracted to the trappings of the emerging holiday; especially the altars. This post is my first Day of the Dead altar, and surprise, it’s all about me! A digital composite of several photos, I created this altar to myself along the lines of traditional altars (minus the religiosity) and because: Why wait?! Read further for a breakdown of the components from top to bottom. To see the photos clearly, click the image once then again …
CENTRAL IMAGE: This large photo represents my interest in succulents, still life photography and Mexican folk art and Halloween. >> MARIGOLD GARLAND: Known as “flowers of the dead”, they can be formed into garland chains or arches for altars. The Aztecs called them cempazuchitl. >> PAPEL PICADO BANNER: Literally “cut paper” in Spanish, these colorful tissue paper decorations ingeniously incorporate entire scenes and words. >> PERSONAL PHOTOS: Altars often have as their focal point a large photo of the deceased; since I’m still here I chose several faves from my past. They include a b/w photo of me as a toddler, me in my Freddie Prinze phase, me mugging in a photo booth, me now. The photo in the tin heart frame at top is a very young Paul vacationing in Mexico; note the hat. >> DISCO BALL: Representative of my all-time favorite musical genre, the reason I dropped out of college and what I expect my altar’s soundtrack will be. >> EX VOTO: A small metal charm to a saint in gratitude or devotion; I chose this golden boy because I thought it perfectly represented me as a child. >> CHAMPAGNE: It’s typical for the deceased’s favorite tipple to be provided for them; in my case it’s Veuve Clicquot Champagne. I respectfully offer that I can make better use of it while alive. >> CANDLES: Handy for the deceased looking for their altar in the dark. Plus I couldn’t resist using my little barrel cactus votives. >> FRUIT (AND VEGETABLES): Anything seasonal is acceptable, but I decided to add chiles, tomatillos and pumpkins. Not only do their colors look great together but they’d make a great soup. >> SALT: Symbolizes the continuance of life. >> THAT HEART: Symbolizes my ongoing serious health problems, which began with a quintuple bypass in 2004. >> GLASS OF WATER: A thirst-quencher for traveling souls. >> FAVORITE FOOD: I chose corn meal because so many of my favorites are corn-based: corn chips, corn bread, corn pudding, masa, tortillas, the list is endless, really. >> REPRESENTATIVE ITEMS: As an artist I chose a few of my most-used paintbrushes. >> FAVORITE ITEMS: I pared down the truckload to two little kitsch figurines from the 1960’s, one a devil, the other a voodoo doll. When their heads are pushed down an acerbic saying is revealed. Hilarious! >> SKULLS: In Mexico, sugar skulls emblazoned with the name of a loved one are placed on the altar. Previous sugary craniums caused a plague of ants so these are painted ceramic and glitter. >> LOS ANGELES TIMES: I spent the most years of my professional life there. >> OTHER ITEMS: Copal incense, bread (pan de muerto), baskets, images of saints and even toiletries, can typically be found on an altar.
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