2023 Día de los Muertos Celebration: La Ofrenda

La Ofrenda 2023: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire

You can’t speak of Day of the Dead without referencing la ofrenda, the altar of offerings to honor the deceased. That’s because la ofrenda is the heart and soul of this tradition and the reason why, year after year, we come together at Fleisher Art Memorial to build a community altar. The collective love for our dearly departed manifests itself in this display of joyful and sentimental commemoration.

The annual Día de los Muertos Celebration at Fleisher Art Memorial has long been guided by the vision of a solo guest artist. For our 2023 celebration, we are fortunate to welcome two revered community figures who decided to join forces, bringing their awareness and a shared vision to this year’s celebrations. The guest artists for 2023 are Erika Guadalupe Nuñez and Ivonne Pinto García.

To understand the vision of the two artists, we also need to understand the significance and importance of the elements in the altar. The following is a brief introduction about the tradition of la ofrenda and the reason why we build it at Fleisher.

La Ofrenda and Fleisher Art Memorial

La Ofrenda represents and honors the people we have lost that were close to us. In Mexico and other Latin American countries that celebrate this tradition, the altars are assembled in the family home to create a pleasant and familiar space to which souls can return and feel welcomed. As a community of immigrants living far from the traditional celebrations of their homelands, the Latinx community in South Philadelphia creates one altar to admire, to inspire, and to unite.

With its unique history, the Sanctuary at Fleisher Art Memorial has proven to be the right space to host La Ofrenda for the community. Designed in the 1880s as an Episcopal church, the building was purchased by Samuel Fleisher in 1922 to serve as a place to celebrate and teach about the reforming power of art and beauty in everyday life – effectively becoming a Sanctuary for Art. It has also been home to La Ofrenda since 2012.

The Elements and Offerings

An ofrenda consists of 2 to 12 levels depending on the tradition in that particular region or town and the available space. Typically, most ofrendas will have either 3 or 7 levels, with the top level representing heaven and the ground representing earth.

What is placed in an ofrenda has to do with the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The presence of these elements is crucial when building an altar, and this year our guest artists decided to emphasize the importance of the four elements and the indigenous origins which suggest that everything in life has a natural, predetermined cycle. The representation of the elements in an ofrenda is the fusion of pre-Hispanic theology and Christianity. This complex combination of tradition and ritual is represented in the altars in ways both obvious and subtle.

First, the four elements are represented:

  • Water (Agua): represents the fountain of life. Usually, a pitcher or glass of water is placed to quench the thirst of the souls during their journey.
  • Candles (Velas): represent the fire and function as guiding lights for souls to find their way into our world and to la ofrenda.
  • Mexican Perforated Paper and Handmade Paper Flowers (Papel Picado y Flores hechas de Papel): represent the wind. These colorful paper cutouts or flowers are also meant to symbolize the fragility of life, due to the ephemeral nature of paper.
  • Fruits (Frutas): pay homage to the earth, celebrating nature’s abundance. These sweet seasonal offerings are a necessity on any altar.

Other traditional offerings are added to complement the four traditional elements:

  • Salt (Sal): needed for the purification of the souls
  • Marigold (La Flor de Cempasúchil): symbolizes the sun. In addition to adorning the altars, the petals and the fragrance are used to mark the path to la ofrenda. No ofrenda should be without them and because they are seasonal in Mexico, they mark the arrival of autumn, the season of Day of the Dead.
  • Copal or Incense or Herb Bundle (Copal o Incienso o Sahumerio): used to make a sacred space wherever you have an ofrenda. Copal, derived from tree resin, is our preferred incense due to its indigenous origins. It offers a cleansing of the space as well as protection from evil.
  • Belongings of the Deceased (Artículos del Fallecido): in an ofrenda in one’s home, photos of the dearly departed are placed with objects that serve as reminders of them to welcome them on their return. Even food and beer can be found on the altars! For La Ofrenda at Fleisher, we invite the community to place photographs and objects to honor their loved ones.
  • Bread of the Dead (Pan de Muerto): Day of the Dead sweet bread meant to be shared among the living and offered to the dead, with many meanings depending on the beliefs of specific regions in Mexico. For some, it symbolizes the body of Christ and our shared humanity. This offering evolved as a representation of Indigenous sacrifices in which the human heart was used as an offering.
  • Sugar Skulls (Calaveras de Azúcar o Alfeñiques): the most iconic symbol of Day of the Dead, representing the fleeting aspect of life. In pre-Hispanic times, real skulls were used in rituals about passing from life to another level, to the spiritual world. After colonialism, sugar skulls made an appearance on the ofrendas with the deceased’s name engraved on them. Sometimes the name of someone living is written on these sweet offerings to remind us that the only definite thing in life is death.
  • Sand Tapestry (Tapete de Arena): a rug made of sand and always located on the floor in front of the altar. Sometimes the rug is made of rice, beans, corn, dirt, or anything organic. Day of the Dead tapetes are meant to represent the transition of life to death, as we all become organic matter when we die. Tapetes are especially common in the Oaxaca region of Mexico.
  • Skeletons (Calacas): the most recognized figure of Day of the Dead celebrations. Found in celebrations throughout Mexico, la calaca is a happy figure that represents our dearly departed. While it isn’t always displayed on la ofrenda, this figure can always be found as a prominent part of Day of the Dead festivities.
  • The Dapper Skull (La Catrina): an early 20th century creation by Mexican artist, cartoonist and engraver José Guadalupe Posada based on the Aztec figure of Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death. In 1947, artist Diego Rivera immortalized the figure in his mural titled Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Central Park. In this work, Rivera added an elegant period dress that complemented the sumptuous hat Posada had already given her, giving birth to La Catrina. This cemented her popularity in Mexican culture, serving as a reminder to honor one’s indigenous roots and to remember, as Posada once said, that death is democratic.

Alternate date in case of rain: Sunday, October 29. For more information, please contact Gerard Silva at gsilva@fleisher.org. El Día de los Muertos Celebration is made possible by the generous support of the William Penn Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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