Highly decorated altars, or ofrendas, are an important part of the Dia de Los Muertos celebrations and a tangible way of remembering departed family and friends. Whether created in public or in a home, the elaborate display of photographs and mementos helps keep those who have died a little closer to our hearts at this time of year.
Over the last three years, Monica Flores has created an altar dedicated to her friends and members of five families on the front porch of her Hollister home.
“It’s a positive way to say this is my family and my friends,” Flores said. “They are all a part of me, and I take pride in them. Looking at other people who have these in their homes, they are all different and there is no wrong way of doing it. But this one represents my family, and people seem to enjoy coming to my home to take a peek at it.”
The first altar that Flores created took up about half of her porch. It has evolved since then to take up the entire porch, and she has designed it with a three-part narrative in mind.
“As you walk up on the left-hand side, it shows a couple of campesinos, farmworkers,” she said. “They represent the people who work on the land and, of course, we have vegetables and corn stalks, which have great symbolism for me, in the back. There is a fire element as well. The middle part symbolizes the transition from life to death, with skulls and marigolds and a big butterfly in the center. And then we have the symbols of the afterlife.”
Flores spent two weeks putting the display together, including items found in most traditional altars.
“You have the elements, like fire, and water,” she said. “We have Mexican Day of the Dead bread because everyone likes something sweet. We have candles and copal incense. We have Mexican banners, papel picado. I use a lot of flowers, particularly marigolds. I will try to add as much color as I can. Everything you put into it is going to mean something.”
While she is always finding more things to place on the altar, she begins by focusing on her memories of loved ones.
“As I am working on it, I think about it like it is a big party that everybody is coming to,” she said. “You have to. My dad was in the military, I’ll put a flag there for him. My brother loved music, so I will find something to represent that. My grandparents loved dancing, so I have a photograph of them dancing hand in hand. A friend of mine was a long-distance trucker, so I have a little truck there for him.”
While her altar outside of her house is very elaborate, she has a simpler one in her home that she keeps year-round.
“I was talking to a neighbor, and she said, ‘I don’t have anything as big and beautiful as what you have made. I just have a small one by my fireplace for my husband,’” Flores said. “And it really is whatever makes you feel good. That is the most important thing.”
Flores views her altar as a personal project but feels it also belongs to the community, saying people are welcome to add a photograph and take a moment to reflect on their memories.
“For me, it is a way of reassuring myself that family members are still there with me,” she said. “You might see the look on their faces in the photographs, or things you have placed on the altar could bring back memories, and it is a constant reminder that they are always around us. That’s the whole point; I’ve always found it comforting.”
The altar, which is located at 40 Hazel Street in Hollister, will be up through Nov. 6.
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