Since becoming a mom I knew I wanted to pass on my Hispanic Heritage and traditions to los bodoques. Growing up Latina, Mamá would take me to el Mercado de Portales to buy all the stuff for the altar. While some of the pieces could be re-used over the years, it was always fun to go on the hunt for new pieces, and of course pick some new papel picado, sugar and chocolate skulls (that you can eat after), and the fresh zempasúchitl (marigold flowers).
I started putting up my own altar in the US when I was pregnant with my first one. It suddenly hit me, Día de Muertos was coming and if I did not celebrate it and make it a tradition, no one would. Fortunately, I had already bought some pieces in my last Mexico bound: a couple of ceramic skulls, papel picado and a Virgen candle. At the time we were in Brooklyn and it was easy to find a good bakery for the pan de muerto and candies. Looking back, I can see how my altar has evolved and slowly but surely will be becoming the grand, beautiful altar that we used to have back at Mamá's home.
Putting up an altar can be as simple or elaborate as you want to make it. Altars and celebrating Day of the Dead is not only a Mexican tradition, in fact it is celebrated all over Latin America, and each country incorporates their own elements and traditions. Below are the essential elements for putting up an altar and its meaning - each element has a purpose and its meaning is tightly tied to our Hispanic culture.
Where to find the elements for an altar? There are many pieces produced by small businesses in the US that are handcrafted by immigrants or small businesses that have a commitment to support Mexican artisans. Please avoid mass produced pieces or overpriced pieces that do not credit or support the artisans.
The Elements of The Día de Muertos Altar
An altar as we know it in Mexico, has 3 levels that represent from bottom to top – the floor or The Underworld, the base or This World and the top or The Spirit World. Since this tradition dates from the pre-Hispanic Mexico, altars nowadays combine elements from our indigenous people as well as the Catholic religion.
The Underworld This World
The Spirit World
The Underworld: In pre-Hispanic Mexico, the floors were dirt, giving a direct connection with the earth. A cross with cal (rock salt) was drawn in the dirt to indicate the cardinal points and help indicate the way back home. Nowadays, the cross can be incorporated as a Catholic cross due to the mixture of pre-Hispanic and Colonial cultures. I cannot burn copal at home as we get allergies but still keep the 3 levels.
This World: Start with a colorful tablecloth – Alma's Oilcloth and Chucherias has a good variety to choose from. Personally loved this ones:
- Your ancestors’ favorite foods – while in Mexico many families still cook the actual dish, nowadays many also add the miniature version. You can also add their favorite fruits and veggies.
- Beverages and candy – my go to place is mexgrocer.com the shipping can get a bit pricey, but it’s worth it if you’re buying most of the elements there. Also, recently I discovered loteriacandyco.com – I loved the boxes! Plus get a 10% Discount with Code: MiLegasi
- Do not forget the sugar and chocolate skulls – these represent each one of your ancestors
- Pan de Muerto (sweet Day of the Death Mexican bread) – this is an absolutely delicious combination of orange zest, aniseed, and sugar and more sugar!! Nothing compares to going to your local bakery and getting it out of the oven fresh and warm. However, if you do not have one near you, mexgrocer.com has a pack of medium and small. I did order the first year I was in the USA and must agree it arrives fresh. Now, if you are looking to really treat yourself look no further than lanewyorkina.com. Fany Gerson’s kitchen is magical! We have tried her dishes as well as her breads and they are hands down authentic and delicious! You can order her Pan de Muerto shipped all over the country through her Goldbelly.com store.
- A glass of water to clean and purify – also said to be for the soul that will be thirsty from the long trip
- Salt – purifies the soul and helps them safely return
- The candles – essential light to illuminate the path for our ancestors to find the way
- The copal and incense – this will clean and purify the space for the souls to come
- zempasúchitl (marigold flowers) these will indicate the path for the soul to return home. If you cannot find fresh marigolds, Alma's Oilcloth and Chucherias has beautiful paper marigolds.
- Baby’s breath flower (flor de nube) – this will indicate the path for the children / baby’s souls
- Toys for the children’s souls
The spirit world: this is where all the pictures of our family will be placed along with more candles and often Catholic elements such as a cross, a candle with a Saint, the figurine of a Saint, etc.
Papel picado (tissue paper): this represents the happiness of meeting our family again. Papel picado is an art that has been passed down generations, artisans do it in Mexico – if you are buying some, I would encourage to do the original tissue. The plastic version is a mass-produced product that endangers the tradition. I have found several options in Etsy like MesaChic and mycajita.com.
When buying authentic or ethically sourced pieces, you are buying art and supporting the artisan communities. Novae Artis is a great option for acquiring unique pieces of the Huichol community. Follow them on IG for new pieces @Novaeartis. You can also get a 15% Discount with code: MILEGASIDDM15
ChasingCamilla on Etsy has super cute ceramic hand painted items as well. Be sure to follow her on IG @Chasingcamilla, and get free shipping until Friday 10/30 with the code MilegasiShip.
Alma’s Oilcloth & Chucherias is a great option for a one stop shop, from mini ofrendas, papel picado, calaca figurines and nichos; everything handmade and unique.
If this is your first year, don’t get overwhelmed, use what you already have at home and let it evolve over the years, as I said, I started with their pictures, papel picado and some calaveritas; over the years I keep acquiring different elements to make it pretty and more like what I remember from back home.
Last but not least, turn on Las Calaveras de Felix Canales to get in the spirit, decorate with the lil’ Latinx to pass on your Hispanic Heritage and have fun celebrating your muertitos coming back home!