Our museum is temporarily closed to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Read a message from our director, and check our website and social media for updates.

Exploring Día de los Muertos with Sandra Cisneros

If you've ever confused Día de los Muertos with Halloween, you might be surprised to learn how very different these fall holidays are from one another. Here at the museum, we wanted to tell the story of Día de los Muertos. Acclaimed author Sandra Cisneros just finished building a beautiful Día de los Muertos altar, through which visitors can explore the holiday's meaning.

"A Room of Her Own" by Sandra Cisneros at the National Museum of American History, featuring yellow walls, framed photos, flowers, candles, and more

A Room of Her Own by Sandra Cisneros 

Día de los Muertos is a storied celebration with deep roots in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies. In these societies, death was seen as simply another stage of living, a long path that the spirit would journey through to a new life. Original celebrations of this continuation of life would last as long as a month. But the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the adoption of Christian beliefs transformed these early rituals into what is now the Day of the Dead, observed from November 1-2. This eclectic mix of culture and religion is celebrated, in some form or another, throughout most of Latin America, but especially in Mexico. Individuals and families create altars, or ofrendas, to honor their loved ones, so that those dearly departed might come back for a day and enjoy a few of their favorite things.

A Room of Her Own is Sandra's offering to her mother, Elvira Cordero Cisneros. Elvira loved museums and made it a revered tradition to visit the museums in her hometown of Chicago every single weekend throughout her life. Now, her life story will be a part of this museum's history with the installation of an ofrenda in her honor, located in the American Stories exhibition.

Clothing, paper butterflies, and framed images in the ofrenda

A framed scarf in the ofrenda includes the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe

The ofrenda is the centerpiece of all Día de los Muertos celebrations. A staple item included in a traditional ofrenda is the cempasúchil flower, known as the Aztec marigold. These yellow-orange blooms bring a splash of color to the display, but their use represents an important function within the altar. These flowers are meant to bring the spirit of the deceased to its ofrenda, the cempasúchil signaling with its fragrant smell the path the spirit is to take. Elvira was a gardening enthusiast, and her ofrenda is full of flowers—not just cempasúchils, but also roses, her favorite flowers. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, is famous for being a central figure in many altars. She is found in Elvira's ofrenda, too, in the form of a framed souvenir scarf that belonged to Sandra's grandmother—a way to honor the previous generations of women in her family. The sugar skull, or calaverita, a widely recognized symbol of the holiday, is also present in the altar—a colorful and ornate reminder that death is the only certainty in life.

A bedstead is an important part of the ofrenda

For Elvira's altar, Sandra has played with the traditional elements of an ofrenda and used her mother's bedstead, instead of a table, as its stage. Elvira grew up in a house full of brothers and sisters. When she married and left her childhood home, she shared a room with her husband. She later shared her house with him and their seven children. It wasn't until the last decade of her life, after her husband passed away, that she had a room of her own. She guarded this space fiercely and adorned it with enthusiasm. A Room of Her Own tries to recreate that space, which was the most sacred to Elvira in life. This play on tradition is something Elvira's creative spirit would have enjoyed, a sentiment which can be appreciated through the collections of trinkets that belonged to her in life and now pepper her altar.

Sandra arranges her mother's extensive collection of figurines

Surrounded by those ornaments is a small tabletop vanity with a mirror, meant for storing jewelry and toiletries. This was Elvira’s cherished "junk drawer"—the place where she kept all those little knickknacks that she accumulated throughout her life. (Can you tell from the pictures? She loved shopping at second-hand stores, a passion she shared with her daughter.) A selection of her various dolls, too, can be seen in the installation. She never had any dolls growing up, and she began collecting them when she was older as prized possessions. If you look closely, you can see the different political pins the dolls are sporting.

Elvira's strong character and political opinions were a big part of her personality. She was an avid reader and library patron; the books that were by her bedside table when she died can be seen by the foot of the bed, as well as a VHS copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one her favorite movies. Her favorite foods are also featured. As part of a Día de los Muertos ofrenda, family members cook the deceased's favorite meals and present them on the altar. Elvira was happiest when she had coffee and pastries set out before her. A selection of cake, cookies, and coffee are all there for her enjoyment.

A slice of cake and tea cup full of coffee with cream among flowers and other "ofrenda" items

Coffee and pastries are among the items in the ofrenda 

Among the non-traditional items found throughout the altar that Sandra would like to highlight is a snakeskin she keeps in a glass bowl. Found by the San Antonio River in the days leading up to the installation of her first ofrenda, it represents the spirit of transformation embodied in death and rebirth. One of the textiles displayed on the wall, a pressed baby pillow sham with an embroidered pink donkey, was made for her mother by the great-grandmother she never knew. Along with her grandmother's Virgin of Guadalupe, this ofrenda is more than an ofrenda to Sandra's mother; it's an ofrenda to all the women in her family—all the women who lived and loved so that she could be here today. Día de los Muertos is, after all, a celebration of life.

Sandra in progress setting up the ofrenda

The ofrenda in progress

Just like Sandra remembers her mother through her ofrenda, millions of others remember their loved ones on these special early-November days. Some families build altars in their homes, others build them right on top of their loved ones' graves alongside all the other families in the cemetery, giving the activities a festive and social character, wherein all get to share stories about the dead and celebrate life together. It's a cherished opportunity for the living to spend some time with those who have passed away. If this tradition and Sandra's work tell us anything, it is that Día de los Muertos is the very opposite of Halloween: Halloween is all about dressing up to scare the ghouls away, and Día de los Muertos is an open invitation for the spirits to visit our world, to gather and rest, and to enjoy their favorite foods with their family and friends.

See the ofrenda at the museum through mid-January

Build an altar of your own, or come and see the ofrenda installed here! Día de los Muertos festivities officially ended on November 2, but the last day visitors can see the ofrenda is January 12, 2015.

If you'd like to build your own offering, be sure to include pictures of your loved ones, to cook their favorite foods, and to have lit candles and fresh flowers. But most importantly, be creative with your altar and how you remember those who have passed, as Sandra has done here at the museum.

If you'd like to see Sandra talking about her ofrenda, look for her series of interviews with the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum and this reflection she shared on her website.

Fabiola Enriquez-Flores interned with the museum in fall 2015. Learn more about internship opportunities and the Program in Latino History and Culture