Los Altares

When you walk into the Mission Church during the month of November, you will notice that there’s a bit more color than usual. On the morning of October 27, Sr. Ana María Pineda’s “US Hispanic Popular Religion” class will be observing the longstanding Latin American tradition of the Día de los Muertos by creating an altar of remembrance for loved ones who have died. The tradition is one of indigenous origin, which is blended with the Catholic observances of the Feast of All Saints (November 1) and the Feast of All Souls (November 2). The use of bright, lively colors emphasizes the celebratory nature of the Día de los Muertos. “It is a time to befriend the idea of death, that it’s part of who we are. It’s a flow from life to death,” explains Sr. Pineda.

Sr. Pineda, citing Virgilio Elizondo, says that there are three moments of death: physical death when a person’s body stops working; the burial of that person, when their death seems truly final; and the moment when they are forgotten. The altars provide a remedy for the latter--a way to remember the deceased.

Elements of the altar that you’ll notice include food, photos, personal items, candles, “papel picado” (ornately cut paper), “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead), sugar skulls, and skeletons. Families use bright and fragrant marigold petals to invite the spirits of the dead home to the altar, where items that they were fond of in life await them.

Maricarmen Batres, a Santa Clara sophomore, has an altar on which she has placed a picture of her grandfather, who passed away this past May. She and her family have a bottle of Coke brought back from Mexico for her grandfather, because he thoroughly enjoyed the beverage while he was alive. She emphasizes that the practice of creating the altar is meant to be a celebration. In fact, when her grandfather died they decided to forego the practice of being in mourning, and instead sing songs in his honor because of his love of and passion for music. When the altar of remembrance is assembled in the Mission Church next week, Maricarmen will be placing a reminder of her grandfather on it.

Sr. Ana María describes how moved she is by the way that people approach the altar and look forward to it each year. “It’s become a really important place for remembering those you love. My impression is that every time [the altar] gets done, this little space has an added sense of sacredness.” There are people from varying traditions and backgrounds who return to the altar year-after-year to keep the memory of their loved ones alive. She continues, “It’s incredibly moving to me to see the different people who are remembered every year.”

Last evening, the Multicultural Center provided students with pan dulce and traditional hot chocolate as it hosted an event to create an altar for the MCC. They provided butterflies on which to write family members’ names as a way of honoring the free spirits of the deceased. They also had sugar skulls that students could decorate and place on the altar. The altar will be on display in the MCC until next Friday.

If you would like to keep the memory of a loved one alive, we invite you to bring an item reminding you of that person to the Mission Church on or after October 27. Please don’t bring original pictures or items of great value. You can pick up your item(s) on November 27 when the altar is disassembled or in Campus Ministry after that date. Additionally, if you have had a loved one die in the past year, we hope you will join us for a mass of remembrance on November 1, the Feast of All Saints, at Noon in the Mission Church.