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Día de los Muertos Ofrendas: A Celebration of Life

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Julianna Garcia

Julianna Garcia stands by the ofrenda her family is making in honor of Guadalupe Pena, her Papa who passed away a few months ago.

Día de los Muertos, which means Day of the Dead in Spanish, is a time to remember loved ones who have died. The holiday, celebrated on the first and second of November, originated in Mexico. It may sound like a time of mourning and sadness, but it is actually a joyful celebration.

A few weeks prior to Día de los Muertos, many families start making ofrendas in their homes. Ofrendas (“offering” in Spanish) are colorful altars that give relatives and friends a meaningful way to honor and remember loved ones. Ofrendas can include a variety of items such as photos, candles, sugar skulls, marigold flowers, papel picado (a traditional Mexican craft made by cutting elaborate designs into sheets of tissue paper) pan de muertos (a traditional Mexican sweet bread made during Día de los Muertos), or objects that are reminders of their lives such as a favorite food and drink.

The tradition of making ofrendas brings healing and comfort for many.

For the last decade, Spanish teacher Beth O’Neal has assigned her sixth and seventh graders a project to create a shoebox ofrenda for Día de los Muertos.

Julianna A. Garcia, now a freshman at St. Agnes Academy, remembers this project from Mrs. O’Neal's class. “Back when we did the ofrendas [at Corpus Christi Catholic School], it just seemed like a fun project. Now that I'm older, I understand and appreciate it better,” she said. 

Julianna’s ofrenda honored her paternal grandpa Roland Sr. Her brother, Ben Garcia, recognized Felicino Andrade, their maternal great-grandfather. Their mom, Dee Dee Pena Garcia, shared, “It’s beautiful to honor not just a culture and a heritage but a way to learn about our loved ones.” 

Dee Dee Pena Garcia

Dee Dee Pena Garcia holds up some of the photos her family is using in the ofrenda in honor of her father, Guadalupe Pena, who passed earlier this year. 

The class assignment was the first and last time their family has ever made an ofrenda. But this year, Julianna suggested they build one in honor of her grandfather (Dee Dee’s dad, Guadalupe M. Pena), who passed away a few months ago. The Garcia family, including oldest brother Daniel and YaYa (Dee Dee’s mom, Diana Pena) are looking forward to celebrating Papa in this special way. 

Over the years, students in Mrs. O’Neal’s class created some memorable ofrendas.  “One made for a grandfather who loved golf was decorated like a golf green and even had the candle sitting on a golf tee. Another was created by a student whose family had a strong military background. His ofrenda was dedicated to his uncles who had served their country.”

She continued, “If a student has not had anyone close to them die, they sometimes honor a pet including a very touching tribute a boy did for his hamster.”

Students have the option to talk about the person they are honoring. “I am always surprised by how much they open up,” Mrs. O’Neal shared. “Sometimes there are tears but that is okay because the classmates are respectful. Families like the project because it is a good way to focus on remembering, talking about, and celebrating loved ones who have passed away." 

MECA

Luis Gavito, curator of MECA'S Dia de los Muertos Altar Exhibition, during the Blessing of the Altars Ceremony for the official opening of the exhibit. (Photo: Pin Lim of Forest Photography)

For 21 years, Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA) has hosted Día de los Muertos celebrations. A highly anticipated feature is their annual ofrenda exhibit, which is on public display the weeks before and after Day of the Dead. 

“The ofrendas are truly works of the heart,” curator Luis Gavito commented. “Although the altars are very private, people are willing to share with others. As we all know, grief is universal, but how we grieve is very individualized. I also appreciate that ofrendas serve an important role in encouraging families to educate children on their familial roots.”

Luis encouraged people to not worry about how they set up their ofrenda. “There is no wrong way or right way to make an altar."

Ofrendas at MECA

One of many ornate ofrendas in the annual MECA Exhibit on display the weeks before and after Day of the Dead celebrations. (Photo: Pin Lim of Forest Photography)

MECA will host a Día de los Muertos Festival on Sat., Oct. 30 and Sun., Oct. 31, 2021 from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

One of MECA’s 2014 displayed ofrendas was created by Bo’s Place, an organization that offers grief support for families who have experienced the death of a loved one. It was the first time Bo’s Place had created an ofrenda and the tradition has continued. 

Bo's Place

Nonprofit Bo’s Place, which supports families with grief, created this ofrenda (displayed at a past MECA exhibit) to honor loved ones. 

Last year, due to Covid, Bo’s Place support groups met online but the staff still wanted to create a community ofrenda so they asked families to send a photo of their lost loved one. The 2020 Bo's Place ofrenda displayed more than 100 photos and could be viewed online.  

Kirsten Herrscher, a volunteer at Bo’s Place, said, “The ofrenda offers a place and time for adults and children to take an active part in supporting each other while remembering their loved one in a meaningful way.”

Bo’s Place extends an invitation to anyone who would like to honor someone this year. Please send the loved one’s picture to [email protected] by Wednesday, October 20. The altar will be displayed at Bo’s Place and on social media. 

Staff members at Bo's Place suggest watching the popular Disney Pixar animated movie Coco (2017) as it is a helpful tool for understanding more about Día de los Muertos and ofrendas.

2020 Bo's Place

In 2020, Bo’s Place families sent in over 100 photos of loved ones who have passed away to create a community ofrenda, which was viewed via social media. 

Bo's Place also created a Coco Family Discussion Guide – focused on grief – to foster conversation about possible loved ones who have passed away, as it relates to the movie.

In recognition of Día de los Muertos, Discovery Green invites Houstonians to celebrate life and remember those who are gone. On Monday, November 1, Houston artist Angel Quesada will build a community ofrenda at Discovery Green. From 4-9 p.m. visitors are invited to bring copies of photos or mementos of loved ones to leave on the altar. (Items will not be returned). 

Community altar at Discovery Green

To celebrate Día de los Muertos alongside the Celebración de Vida art installation, Houston artist Angel Quesada will create a community altar on view Nov. 1, 4-9 p.m. Visitors are invited to bring copies of photos or mementos of loved ones to leave on the altar.

Currently, Discovery Green is home to “Celebración de Vida,” a free outdoor art exhibit by the art collective MEXICRÁNEOS. The 10 uniquely painted skulls in the exhibit are placed around the park and should be easy to spot since they are each 7 feet tall. View the skulls through Nov. 7. 

Researching for this article has inspired me to put together an ofrenda this year and has made me happy to have a way to remember and celebrate my late parents and brother. Now I just need to gather their favorite drinks: a chocolate shake, a TAB and some homemade lemonade! 

Happy Día de los Muertos to you and your loved ones.

  • Julianna's ofrenda for school

    The ofrenda project that Julianna Garcia created for Mrs. O’Neal’s middle school Spanish class at Corpus Christi Catholic School.

  • Skull

    Ten 7-foot skulls are on display around Discovery Green in honor of Día de los Muertos. Celebración de Vida by MEXICRÁNEOS will be in town through Nov. 7. (Photo courtesy of Discovery Green)

  • Julianna's ofrenda for school
  • Skull

Julianna's ofrenda for school

The ofrenda project that Julianna Garcia created for Mrs. O’Neal’s middle school Spanish class at Corpus Christi Catholic School.

Skull

Ten 7-foot skulls are on display around Discovery Green in honor of Día de los Muertos. Celebración de Vida by MEXICRÁNEOS will be in town through Nov. 7. (Photo courtesy of Discovery Green)

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