Paper butterflies made by Cal Duran for a Dia de los Muertos ofrenda (altar). (Provided by The Latino Cultural Arts Center)

Every culture has its own way of honoring and remembering the dead.

In Japan, family members send floating lanterns down rivers. Jewish people light yahrzeit candles. And across Latin America — and among Mexican-Americans stateside — there’s the multi-day celebration known as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead (Oct. 31-Nov. 2).

Many of the parades and parties typically associated with Día de los Muertos are on hold during this pandemic-powered year, but one of the most significant traditions endures: the building of ofrendas, or altars.

A kit to make items for a Dia de los Muertos ofrenda (altar). (Provided by The Latino Cultural Arts Center)

“You’ll notice as you travel throughout Mexico and beyond that everybody has a different take. The altars all look different,” said Alfredo Reyes, director of operations and programs for the Latino Cultural Arts Center (LCAC), a developing cultural campus that supports the region’s Latino creatives. “There’s something that connects them all and that’s a sense of reverence for their dead. … It’s not that they’re gone; it’s that they’ve transitioned to a different world.”

Traditionally, ofrendas contain offerings such as flowers, photographs, food and objects that the loved one was fond of, all of which are intended to guide the spirits of ancestors back to the living. To help foster a sense of healing and togetherness in the community this year, the LCAC and D3 Arts — in collaboration with a number of other local Latino cultural organizations — is co-presenting Ofrendas, a monthlong series based around Día de los Muertos.

The altars are at the heart of the program. LCAC created altar kits comprised of a dozen handmade offerings from artists and artisans based in Denver, Mexico and Peru that people can customize to align with their family traditions. “It’s an invitation to collaborate with these local artists,” Reyes said. “What’s really important about this effort is we want to share these ancient traditions and contemporary iterations, but we want to preserve the artisan aspects of it, the handmade aspects. We don’t want this to become this glorified mass-consumer, ethnic version of Halloween.”

Only 200 kits are available (starting Oct. 16); reserve yours by making a minimum donation of $150 at Fifty children’s kits, which include a book and “Coco”-themed papel picado, or cut paper decoration, are also available for a $30 donation.

A felt heart, made by Lilian Lara, for the Dia de los Muertos ofrenda (altar). (Provided by The Latino Cultural Arts Center)

Among the hand-crafted items is a DIY felt heart by Denver artist Lilian Lara. The 31-year-old Mexican-American works in mixed media and has long had a passion for Día de los Muertos; she even sews her own La Catrina costumes (the iconic female skeleton donning a resplendent bonnet). Families assemble and sew the pieces together to form the heart, which is accompanied by a sequin marigold.

“This would be a good moment to set aside and as you’re making, as you’re creating, you’re thinking of that person you lost,” Lara said. “With the death toll that (COVID-19) has taken, the huge loss of life that we’re all experiencing across the world … it’s even more important to have those celebrations, to have that catharsis. This is a good way to channel that and channel all of those very intense emotions — the process of loss, the process of that emptiness where that person was, you get this positive way of channeling that out through traditions.”

Other local artist contributions include paper butterflies by Cal Duran; a laser-cut milagro charm from jeweler Ana Marina Sanchez; and a DIY plaster calavera (skull) handmade by Victor Escobedo. All of the artisans were paid for their work.

“There’s a story behind every one of those altar pieces. We all have a story to tell and that story can be one of loss, but it’s also one of resilience and creativity and being able to come together as a community to learn, to create, to heal,” Reyes said.

To share the sacred traditions of Día de los Muertos more broadly, the Ofrendas project also includes a series of free events throughout October. (Ofrendas is a collaboration between LCAC, D3, the Chicano Humanities & Arts Council, Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Chicana/o Studies and  Journey Through Our Heritage program, Re:Vision, RISE Westwood Collective, Latin Fashion Week Colorado and Life-Line Colorado.)

Earlier this month, “Ofrendas in Community” saw the creation of a community altar at Kepner Legacy Middle School, a candlelight vigil, and a peace march as a response to the rise in gun violence among the city’s youth. “Ofrendas Online” is a series of virtual lectures and events, such as historical talks, cooking classes (learn to make pan de muerto, or bread of the dead), and artist workshops. An in-person Family Day and Community Day will be held on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, respectively.

A kit to help children make a Dia de Los Muertos ofrenda (altar). (Provided by the Latino Cultural Arts Center)

The celebration bears new weight this year as COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact people of color. Hispanic Coloradans accounted for about 38% of hospitalizations in late August, according to the most recent data from the state health department. Nationally, the CDC has found that Hispanics and Latinos constitute 21.2% of all COVID-19 deaths, though they represent just 18.5% of the country’s population.

“Ofrendas 2020 has really grown to become a citywide celebration and honoring of the collective loss that we’re experiencing in the time of COVID,” Reyes said. “It’s been comforting to know that there are traditions out there that are hundreds of years old that my ancestors have been able to pass down and preserve.”

Flo Hernandez Ramos is credited with helping to revive the ofrenda tradition in Denver. She’s built an ofrenda in her home every year since 1985. The temporary piece has grown larger with time, expanding upward to add mementos honoring people like her mother and father. “Some people pull out their Christmas ornaments. I have to pull out all my Día de los Muertos stuff,” she said.

Her family usually comes over to see it and spend time together over dinner and games. This year, though, the retired president and CEO of KUVO is hosting a much smaller gathering, with timed entry into her home and to-go bags of goodies. (Hernandez Ramos will speak about the local history of Día de los Muertos during a virtual talk on Oct. 31.)

“There really is to me a very therapeutic value in having an altar that honors people who have died and has things that they used to love and appreciate,” she said. “I think it’s really important that people understand this holiday is about reflecting on what you came from — who gave you those opportunities, who made this all possible — and honoring and respecting that. And that you should not embrace death necessarily but know that it’s going to come and that you should try to do the best that you can in your life while you’re here, so that when people remember you, they remember good things.”


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