Tag Archives: day of the dead altar

Creating a Day of the Dead Altar

My 2020 Dia de los Muertos / Day of the Dead altar

It’s November 1 which means it’s time for Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos!  I’ve always received a lot of questions about Day of the Dead.  What is it?  Why do people wear skeleton masks?  What is the significance of an altar?  I always tell people that it’s not morbid or spooky.  It’s simply a celebration of our ancestors – nuestros antepasados – and I explain that it is generally associated with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. 

I love how more and more people I know are creating their own altars or ofrendas at home.  I think people worry when they get started that they are doing it wrong.  But I tell them there is no right or wrong way to create an altar because they can take many forms, shapes and sizes.  I’ve had an altar in my home for a number of years using my dining room buffet.  I add a two-tiered shelf to give it a few levels and make room for the items I display that are associated with different family members who have passed on.  Some years, I have so much I want to display that I carry it over to my dining room table and even my living room coffee table!  

One day I would really like to create an altar that displays the seven levels.  I remember being at the Day of the Dead celebration in Birmingham several years ago and a lady was explaining the seven levels to me.  Her altar was so intriguing and I had never seen one like it before.  Until that time, I didn’t really know about “the levels.”  She mentioned that altars should include the elements of water, air, fire and earth.  Most altars represent the earth and sky (or heaven).  That’s simple enough, right?  Other altars add another level – purgatory – or the underworld. 

The seven levels build upon each other and look something like this:

  1.  The Highest level would feature a photo of the Virgin Mary and/or a favorite Saint.  This is done to protect the altar.
  2. The second level would feature candles and lights.  The lights represent a guide to help souls leave purgatory.  The light also represents the light of faith and hope.
  3. The third level features toys for children who have passed and salt which is used as purification for the soul of the deceased
  4. The fourth level is all about the Pan de Muertos (the bread of the dead) and sugar skulls – an offering of food to the spirits.
  5. The fifth level features favorite foods and drinks of our loved ones – for instance, you might place favorite fruits, tequila or beer, and other favorites.  This represents the good times with our loved ones.
  6. The sixth level is where you see all the photos of loved ones who have passed.
  7. At the seventh level you will find the Aztec marigold flowers called Cempasuchitl flowers or flor de Muertos.  Some altars will feature a cross made of the marigold flowers on the ground.  The scent of these flowers is thought to guide our ancestors and are placed on the ground as a pathway for the souls. 

The most common altars are divided three sections – the entrance “la entrada”, the mid-tier section with a table of offerings, and the highest-level representing heaven, where photos of the dead are hung along with images of favorite saints, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus.

As you can see, there is a lot of symbolism associated with Día de los Muertos.  I’m sure it can seem intimidating if you are trying to create your own altar for the first time.  When I started making mine, I searched the internet for photos of the “correct” way to do it and soon realized there isn’t one.  The truth is, you should feel free to create one however you wish.  The bottom line is that you are doing this to honor your loved ones and it’s a special remembrance for you and your family. 

Here are a few photos of my altar to hopefully inspire you to make your own if you are on the fence about it!  Seeing what other people have pulled together or created always inspires me!

Making a Nicho Retablo for Day of the Dead

The nicho retablo I created for my Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos altar this year!

This summer I visited the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  I always love going here and seeing the exhibits.  My late cousin, Chila (Orcilia Forbes), served on the board of the center and it’s such a wonderful place to visit and explore.

I was walking through the permanent exhibit section with my mother and my cousin, Ophelia (better known as Boogie!), when we came across a really beautiful piece of artwork of the Virgen de Guadalupe.  It was a retablo or shadow box of a large Virgen Mary in the center, surrounded by small shadow boxes all decorated in different ways with other images of Mary.  We were all in awe of this piece.  I wish I could remember the name of the artist, but suffice it to say that the wheels started turning in my head and in my cousin Boogie’s head!  I didn’t get a photo since no photos were allowed in the gallery, but I sketched out the design so we could have something to reference.  Boogie and I decided this was something we needed to modify and try for our next Zuniga Family Reunion in 2019!  We always bring photos and make a point to remember family members who have passed on.  This would be a wonderful way to engage family members and plan a reunion activity!  Between now and then though, we decided we would each work on a prototype to see what we needed to have on hand in order to create a nicho retablo.

As background, nicho retablos are a mixed media type of creation or artwork.  In Hispanic culture, they tend to be spiritual and religious and can be used on an altar for events such as Dia de los Muertos or in devotional places of your home.  Sometimes these are made with small tin boxes, like an Altoids tin box, while others are made with wood and have doors that can be closed on the images inside. These are always very colorful and vibrant.  The décor can be quite ornate but there is a beauty in all this décor and it is quite striking because it tends to signify the person or persons being honored.

Boogie called me shortly after I got home from Albuquerque and she had found some shadow boxes at Hobby Lobby that she thought would work well.  She sent me a photo and I went to buy a few.  They looked perfect!  I set out to make a nicho retablo for my Day of the Dead altar this year and chose a photo of my father with his two brothers and sister.  I’ve always loved this picture of them…all sitting on the couch at my grandmother’s house and smiling broadly!  I knew I wanted to make this multi-dimensional so I made several copies of the photo so I could cut out each figure and experiment.

Meanwhile, I had collected various “artsy”  items like old jewelry, fabric leaves, decorative ribbon and other crafty items from various places.  I hit a creative roadblock as I got started and I wasn’t sure what to use so I went to Pinterest to browse.  Something I saw sparked my creativity and I decided I needed monarch butterflies to place behind each figure from the photograph to make it appear they had wings!  I headed to Michael’s and found a package in the perfect size!

From left to right – Uncle Lorenzo, my dad Praxedis, Uncle Felix and Aunt Gloria

From there everything started evolving…I used ribbon at the top of the display that reminded me of papel picado.  I also placed some of the same ribbon on the glass at the bottom.  Next, I hot glued each of the figures to the back of the shadow box, staggering them so they would all fit.

Next I used plastic amber gemstones from an assorted I bought at Hobby Lobby along with brown sequins leaves – two leaves to a gemstone – to create a flying effect, like a flying heart.  Honestly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to use them but when I put them on the counter top, two leaves fell next to a gemstone and I took it as a sign to use that particular design!   The front part of the retablo, the glass, needed a little something more so I cut up a few fabric leaves to make them smaller and added a yellow looking plastic stone – again, keeping with the flying heart effect.

Heart applied to my dad’s photo and a look at the glass decor before everything is finally pulled together and completed.

The final touch was a red plastic gemstone heart.  There was only one in the package that I bought.  I placed it on the photo of my father adding a pop of color to the shadow box.  It was now ready to seal up and place on my dining room altar.

The addition of this handmade nicho retablo this year is really what my altar was missing and feel a few more in the works in the weeks to come.  I know when I begin seeing photos on social media of other altars for Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos this year, it will keep this creative streak alive so I’ll need to take advantage of that!

My newly created nicho retablo now has a special place on my Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos altar!