Dia de los Muertos: Personal traditions of altar building in honor of loved ones

By Anna Shoriak

The Guardsman

For the holiday of Dia de los Muertos celebrants build temporary altars in memory of loved ones who have died. It is a traditional activity incorporating spiritualism, symbolism, family, faith, and community.

“Death isn’t mourned, it’s celebrated, which is what I really enjoy about this holiday,” said Miguel Chavez, who has been celebrating this tradition for 25 years. “I like to remember jokes and pranks that those who have died used to play. For me, it’s a time to laugh and remember.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, the rituals, preparations, and traditions of Dia de los Muertos were big events in Chavez’s community, with months spent in preparation.

“My family plans out what we’ll need and we make necessary arrangements with the florist and the baker. We also clean the house from top to bottom, to welcome the dead,” Chavez said.

The Chavez family celebrations include prayer, decorating sugar skulls and building altars decorated with candles, religious icons, paper flowers, live marigolds, photographs, and tamales and mole as offerings to their ancestors.

“Every year since I’ve moved to San Francisco, I build a personal altar in my apartment for my Abuelo and my Tio. I like to place their favorite cigars around it, some cerveza — the things they really enjoyed in life.”

“Mi Tio was a prankster and a comedian, so I have a whoopee cushion on my altar, too. Mi Abuelo‘s favorite food was fish tacos, so I always make sure to grab some of those for him. I also love to go to the Mission and pick out the sugar skulls for my altar,” Chavez said.

Rather than placing his altar on display in a public place like some celebrants, Chavez chooses to keep his altar a personal matter.

“I like to mourn on my own which is why I don’t partake in the public altars, but I appreciate looking at all the other people’s altars. It’s nice to know that you’re not alone in your grief.”

Public Altars

Altar maker Victor Martinez will display his public altars, which were made in memory of his sister and grandmother, at the Festival of Altars in Garfield Park in the Mission district on Nov. 2.

“For me, Dia de los Muertos is a very spiritual time, it lets us speak with our departed loved ones,” Martinez said. “I’m of the belief that the spiritual world is able to listen to our prayers during this time. It’s definitely a time of healing.”

Like the Chavez family, the Martinez family also builds altars to place on loved ones’ graves, however their celebration has more of a religious focus, which includes holding a graveside vigil with prayers and hymns.

“Growing up with a strict Catholic faith, we didn’t party like some of my friends’ families,” Martinez said. “Dia de los Muertos was centered around attending church services followed by prayers, and then the making and presenting of our altars. Now that I’m older, I enjoy attending church services, followed by the festival and street party afterwards.“

Anyone interested in displaying an altar at the Festival of Altars at Garfield Park, from 6 to 11pm, can check in at the Marigold Project information table near the Garfield Park clubhouse on Nov. 2.  Many altars will be in progress or completed by long-time altar makers for viewing during the day.

The Dia de los Muertos procession organized and led by the Rescue Culture Collective starts at 7pm at 22nd and Bryant Streets and concludes at Garfield Park at 26th and Harrison Streets.

The Guardsman