On Día de los Muertos, sacred altars help reunite the living and the dead

Each fall, Maruca Salazar prepares her home for visitors from another realm.

The 71-year-old scatters the walkway to her house on Denver’s Northside with the rich, orange petals of the cempasúchil — marigold — flowers. The blossoms, grown by Salazar, are synonymous with the traditional Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos as they are thought to be fragrant enough to attract the spirits of deceased loved ones to their family’s homes and altars.

On Thursday, Day of the Dead, Salazar’s family will pack the matriarch’s home and gather around a sacred altar overflowing with photos of the dead and ofrendas — offerings — made up of the departed’s favorite earthly delights. The day serves as a reunion between the living and the dead when the veil between realms is considered thinnest.

“It is really peaceful,” Salazar said. “I am happy to know that when you’re gone, there is a beyond, and that beyond is powerful. It is a nostalgic day to remember where you came from and who you came from.”

Lit candles guide the path to Salazar’s front door. Garlands of marigolds and papel picado — colorful, decorative paper cutouts — line Salazar’s porch, letting passersby in this realm and the next know that a celebration of life, death and remembrance is brewing inside.

Salazar — a storied artist and former director of Santa Fe Art District’s Latin American art museum Museo de las Americas —  helped popularize Day of the Dead in Denver during the burgeoning Chicano movement in the 1970s. Even though the celebration is more widely recognized today, Salazar still enjoys teaching new celebrants the ancient ways of Día de los Muertos — the rites and rituals her grandmother passed to her that she passed to her daughter who now teaches her granddaughter.

While Día de los Muertos iconography like sugar skulls can often be found alongside witch hats and fun-sized candy bars at the grocery store, Day of the Dead is not simply a Mexican version of Halloween, Salazar said. The holiday, a blend of Indigenous and Latino cultural traditions dating back thousands of years, focuses on honoring ancestry and commemorating death as a part of life by building altars that serve as shrines to memorialize lost loved ones.

“I want people to remember me when I am gone, so I remember those I have lost,” she said.

Loss is universal

The leaders of the Latino Cultural Arts Center know the value of passing traditions on to youth, which is why the center brought Día de los Muertos programming to three Denver schools this year.

The art classroom at Denver’s Valverde Elementary School hummed on Tuesday with an excitement only attainable by a group of children given craft supplies at 9:30 a.m. As the arts center’s Mandy Medrano and Valverde art teacher Kristina Barboza passed out light-up butterfly replicas, faux marigolds and miniature clay pan de muerto — a type of Mexican bread baked for Day of the Dead — the fourth-graders squealed with delight.

Barboza has been teaching Día de los Muertos for six years at Valverde, where a majority of the student body is Hispanic.

Fourth graders in Kristina Barboza’s art class at Valverde Elementary School show off the Día de los Muertos altars they are making on October 24, 2023, in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

“It started off small,” Barboza said. “We’d put an altar together, but post-COVID, it turned into a bigger family celebration because of the needs of our community. Because there was so much loss. Our parents asked for this, and it’s brought our whole community together.”

The students make art to display at a big altar honoring the school community’s lost loved ones. With the help of Latino Cultural Arts Center funding, families will be welcomed on Thursday for food, drinks and mental health resources.

Melissa Roybal, a Denver Public Schools social worker and trauma-informed therapist, volunteers with the arts center to provide mental health services at its Day of the Dead programming.

“We’re trying to destigmatize talking about mental health in the Latino community,” Roybal said. “That’s why it’s so important to have practitioners who look like the communities they’re serving.”

Normalizing mental health can be as simple as word reframing, Roybal said. Instead of using words like “therapy,” Roybal tells people she’s there to help talk things out.

“Everyone has loss,” Medrano said. “It’s universal. I’m never afraid to talk to kids about loss. It’s better to not sugarcoat things and be real about it. It’s a part of who we are as a people.”

Yulissa Robles, 9, was happy to share as she glued pink ribbon to her altar, which she was making to honor her uncle and aunt who passed away.

“My favorite part has been making something that represents my family,” Yulissa said. “At home, we make our altar, too, because we like to represent our culture.”

Maruca Salazar in front of her home in Denver on Oct. 26, 2023. She decorated the porch with marigold petals, candles, papel picado, and incense in honor of Día de los Muertos. (Photo by Amanda Lopez/Special to The Denver Post)

“A beautiful tapestry”

On Thursday, Salazar prepped her altar-making supplies in her santos — saints — room, a striking part of her home with walls the color of butter and covered from top to bottom in artwork spanning various religions, from crosses to New Mexican saints to tapestries and her own woodwork.

She blessed the offerings before placing them on the altar, bathing them in incense from burning palo santo.

Her fingers brushed the frames and delicate edges of generations-old photographs awaiting their time on the altar. As the day gets closer and Salazar’s preparations head into overdrive, she said she begins dreaming of her deceased family members and knows they are close. She awaits their reunion at the altar with a soft smile.

“Life and death is with you constantly,” Salazar said. “If you ignore that, you only live but half your life.”

Renee Fajardo, coordinator of the Journey Through Our Heritage program at Metropolitan State University of Denver, described typical altar components as elements of the earth: fire in the form of candlelight, water and air represented by feathers or the paper cutouts. Altars often offer salt to protect the body from breaking down as it travels from the world of the dead to the world of the living, Fajardo said. The marigold flowers, pictures of the deceased and sugar skulls are key components, as well.

A mixture of palo santo, sage and other traditional Mexican herbs are added to a burner to purify and bless all who will enter Maruca Salazar’s home on Día de los Muertos. (Photo by Amanda Lopez/Special to The Denver Post)

“It’s a beautiful tapestry — a weaving of people and communities and a particular area coming together to say, ‘This is the way we are going to love and honor our departed loved ones,’” Fajardo said. “It’s really about our humanity as a people that live on the same planet with each other, that we all have families we love and communities, and we all have departed loved ones.”

Family members also add personal touches to the altars reflecting the visitors’ personalities.

Salazar, for example, would like her family to leave her favorite molé at her altar when she dies.

Thanks to Colorado’s Latino and Chicano leaders throughout the years, Day of the Dead celebrations can be found throughout the state, from Westwood’s street festival to the parade along Santa Fe Drive to live dancing and music at the Longmont Museum.

Fajardo, a Denver native with Chicana and Native American roots, said when she thinks about Día de los Muertos, she imagines a future where the sacred remembrance of one’s ancestors lasts longer than the holiday.

“Once you have these pictures and stories of people and ancestors who built the community, we want to encourage people to begin a repository, a history telling,” Fajardo said. “We want it to be more than just looking at the parade and building of altars. How do we collect these stories and make sure the people who come after us recognize who we are in Colorado is a big, historic tradition of people weaving in and out of each other for hundreds of years.”

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