Yesterday, we had the opportunity to visit some ofrendas or altars and learn more about Day of the Dead or Dia De Los Muertos. Lynda Martinez, one of the best tour guides in Mexico took a group of Newcomers around Xochimilco and San Angel to see a variety of complex and simple ofrendas.
Dia De Los Muertos can be traced back to pagan culture. When the Spanish came to colonize, they were horrified that the indigenous peoples embraced Catholicism and kept their own celebrations and traditions. On November 1st, families honor deceased infants and children. On November 2nd they honor dead family members and build alters to welcome them back. On the altars, things are generally grouped in four levels:
Bottom level represents the Earth: Generally represented with some sort of food. Usually bread or pan. The altar will also generally include water, as your dead loved one is most probably very thirsty from traveling so far. The element of Fire is generally included and is often represented through inclusion of candles, which light the way for the dead loved on to make their way back. And the air is most often represented by the colorful, decorative tissue paper that often hangs high above the altar and flutters in the air.
Some altars include a red flower is called amaranth. It is a flower that contains a high amount of protein. The Indians used to use the seed of this flower and mix it with human blood. They used this to form different idols. The idea was to take a little of something holy and mixing it with something Earthly and make themselves holy. The red flower amaranth and its petals are incorporated into many of the displays we saw.
Our tour took us to see several different types of altars. First, we went to the home of Dolores Olmedo. Olmedo was a wealthy businesswoman who was also a patron of Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera. It is also widely accepted that Olmedo was one of Rivera’s many lovers, and used her wealth to control him, purchasing the art of his lovers (Khalo and Angelina Beloff) to control Rivera and his other loves. In the slideshow, you’ll see six hairless dogs that we walked past as we exited the exhibit at her home. These hairless dogs are descendents of Frida and Diego’s dogs and are called, “Xoloitzcuintli“. These dogs were used as footwarmers by the Aztecs because their body temperatures raise to about 120 degrees. They were also one of two sources of protein for native tribes–with turkey being the other. Gross! The ofrendas at her home were the most complicated and detailed. Like Olemdo, the altars were over the top and unapologetic.
We then went to San Angel, a little puebla right outside of Mexico City. We visited a museum called Casa de Risco. Once the home of a wealthy statesman, it is now a museum, and has a beautiful fountain in the home’s center court with imported plates and tiles made of real china. The architecture of the museum is beautiful. Inside the museum, staffers had built a lovely oferenda to the man and his wife, the former owners of the home. Their ofrenda was filled with books (he had so many books he had to buy the house next door and turn it into a library), food, water, and other loving treasures.
San Angel is known for its historical architecture, quaint squares and Saturday markets. It’s all everyone raves about—so I was a little surprised to see us zip past a Louis Vuitton and a Tiffany’s on the way to the town square. Mmmm…. However, the town also had some lovely, homemade altars in the town square. You’ll see them in the slideshow. The ofrendas in the town square were lovingly made and simple. Displayed outdoors, they use flower petals to spell out the names of loved ones.
I took photos and tried to explain the images in the captions. I hope you enjoy!