As people enter The Center on Colfax in Denver, they are greeted by a colorful community altar featuring sugar skulls, flowers, skeleton figures and photos of people.
The altar, called an “ofrenda” in Spanish, is part of the center’s celebration of Day of the Dead, or “Día de los Muertos” — a holiday where people honor dead loved ones.
“A lot of it is about reconnecting with who we are as people and who has been here before us,” said Sandra Zapata, the director of youth services at The Center on Colfax.
Day of the Dead is a pre-Hispanic celebration that predominantly occurs in Mexico on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, according to the center.
On these days, spirits are believed to return home and spend time with their loved ones, according to The Mexican Museum. Families build altars with offerings to welcome the spirits.
This year, communities throughout Colorado have planned events in honor of Day of the Dead, with hopes of bringing people together — both in person and in spirit.
At the Sheridan Library in Denver, the community group Sheridan Rising Together for Equity planned to host a Day of the Dead celebration on Nov. 1 featuring dance performances, food and an exhibition of an altar.
From now until Nov. 5, the library is also hosting a traveling museum exhibition from Museo de las Américas about Day of the Dead, displaying artifacts that help share the history and meaning of the holiday.
Museo de las Américas, a Latin American art museum within Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe, has planned its own celebration in collaboration with other organizations at 5 p.m. on Nov. 3.
In Thornton, the city’s arts and culture division will host the seventh annual Day of the Dead celebration from noon to 5 p.m. Nov. 4 at McAllister Park Center.
Zapata said it is really interesting to see how different communities celebrate Day of the Dead, whether it be hosting a parade, creating a communal ofrenda, or visiting the cemetery where a loved one is buried.
“I want to be in those spaces and I want to reconnect to traditions with other folks who also celebrate Day of the Dead. Maybe it looks different from what I’m used to, and that’s going to be OK,” Zapata said.
“You get to see what they look like outside of, you know, maybe your own experience — and that’s great.”
The Center on Colfax’s ofrenda
The Center on Colfax, an LGBTQ+ community center based in Denver, has been creating ofrendas for Day of the Dead since about 2016, Zapata said.
This year, the center invited the community to participate in building the ofrenda and bring photos of their loved ones.
Zapata said people’s willingness to share was very touching.
“For them to share very intimate details about their loved ones and why they meant so much to them, and maybe how tragically they lost them — I think it’s such an honor for folks to feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable in a public space with people that maybe they don’t know,” Zapata said.
Zapata, whose pronouns are they/them, said they grew up in Mexico, and it was a tradition for schools to have an ofrenda every year.
“You get to bring pictures of the folks that you want to remember and bring back on Day of the Dead,” they said. “It was always an activity that we did at school and at home and, kind of, honoring those folks and what they taught us.”
At the age of 16, Zapata moved to Iowa.
“It made me kind of cling on to those celebrations much more because I didn’t want to lose them,” Zapata said. “I wanted to continue to honor the traditions that I grew up with, regardless of where I was and whether or not folks around me were going to celebrate it in the same way.
“I just wanted to make sure that I honored my culture and the things that I grew up with,” they continued.
The ofrenda will be open until the first week of November, Zapata said. Creating it is a way for The Center on Colfax to recognize intersectionality within the community, they added.
“Yes, being part of the LGBTQ+ community is important, but all of our other identities are just as important to us,” they said.
Zapata explained being queer and Mexican comes hand-in-hand.
“For me to be able to celebrate that very specific space that I live in … It’s important to me that places, like my place of work, will celebrate it with the same enthusiasm, right, that any other celebration would (get),” they said.
Thornton’s celebration aims for more than 1,000 attendees
Over the years, Thornton’s celebration of Day of the Dead has grown to the point of attracting hundreds of attendees.
Alisa Zimmerman, the manager of the City of Thornton’s Arts and Culture Division, said the celebration started as a small gathering in the arts and culture center.
This year, for the seventh annual celebration, the event will be held from noon to 5 p.m. Nov. 4 at McAllister Park Center, located at 750 W. 96th Ave.
Zimmerman said it is important for any city to recognize the diversity and richness of its community.
“There is a very large, robust Hispanic community in Thornton — in original Thornton, which is the southern part of Thornton,” Zimmerman said.
By 2019, the event attracted a few hundred attendees, she said. To accommodate the bigger crowd, the celebration is now held at McAllister Park, which has a building on it that was previously a church.
“That proved to be the perfect, you know, home for this event as it continues to grow, and it’s both an indoor and outdoor thing,” she said. “We love the fact that it’s still very near to our core community that loves to celebrate this event.”
Last year, about 700 people attended, she said. The year before that, an estimated 1,000 people showed up.
This year, the goal is to exceed 1,000 attendees, she said.
Attendees this year can expect music and dance performances, as well as face painting, an art market and a costume contest.
The celebration this year will also feature the Butterfly Pavilion. Zimmerman said the pavilion wanted to display its monarch butterfly exhibit because monarchs migrate to Mexico and some people believe that monarchs represent the dead coming back to visit the living.
The Mexican Cultural Center will also create a beautiful ofrenda, Zimmerman said. People are able to bring photos to place on the ofrenda.
“The wonderful part, for me, is it’s so multigenerational,” she said. “I think Day of the Dead represents a wonderful opportunity to gather people together.”
When asked what advice she has for newcomers, Zimmerman said, “Come with a sense of discovery and curiosity about what this holiday is.”
Museo de las Américas to host a procession
Museo de las Américas is the premier Latin American art museum in the Rocky Mountain region, said Executive Director Claudia Moran.
This year, Museo will host a Day of the Dead celebration starting at 5 p.m. Nov. 3 at 861 Santa Fe Drive in Denver.
The free event will feature a community procession honoring loved ones from 6-7 p.m.
This procession is a collaborative effort between Museo, the Art District on Santa Fe, Chicano Humanities and Arts Council, and the Office of Councilwoman Jamie Torres, according to a news release.
The procession will commence in the parking lot of Su Teatro at 721 Santa Fe Drive around 5:45 p.m. and will head on a route that will conclude at Museo de las Américas.
The celebration will feature an altar, a dance performance, local vendors, sugar skull decorating and a Catrina costume contest.
Sheridan Library’s exhibition, community program
In addition to its community celebration, Museo de las Américas is recognizing Day of the Dead through its traveling exhibition that is on display at the Sheridan Library, located at 3425 W. Oxford Ave., until Nov. 5.
“The purpose of the exhibit is to use art and artifacts to explain the history and meaning of Día (de) los Muertos (Day of the Dead),” said Laura Beacom, the curator of collections at Museo.
Creating the Day of the Dead traveling exhibition was by demand, Beacom said. She started building it over the pandemic, and it was first displayed last year at a library in Wheat Ridge.
The objects on display are something people would not normally be able to see if not for the traveling exhibition, she said.
“It’s just really important for people to have artwork that reflects their own history and culture,” Beacom said. “And for people who don’t know anything about it, it’s important for them to be able to learn about it.”
It is important that Sheridan Library celebrates Day of the Dead because the Sheridan community is diverse and strongly Latine, said Kathleen Robertson, supervisor at Sheridan Library. Latine is a gender-neutral form of the word Latino.
“I think it’s important to hang on to cultural traditions,” Robertson said.
This year will be the second that the community group Sheridan Rising Together for Equity will host a Day of the Dead celebration at Sheridan Library.
“We had never seen such a well-attended event at this library,” Robertson said about last year’s event.
This year’s celebration will include performances by dance groups, an exhibition of the altar of the dead, a Catrinas costume contest, and bread and hot chocolate.
The evolution of Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead has its origins in the rituals practiced by Indigenous peoples of the Americas, such as the Aztecs, according to The Mexican Museum.
Museo de las Américas said the Aztecs used skeletons as a tribute to the deity Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death.
According to History.com, once the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire, the Catholic Church changed when the Indigenous celebrations honoring the dead occurred. This made the celebrations fall on the Catholic dates of Nov. 1, which is All Saints’ Day, and Nov. 2, which is All Souls’ Day.
Claudia Moran, executive director at Museo, said that from her understanding, there are two primary areas in Mexico where Day of the Dead is celebrated in a very traditional way — Mexico City and the Mexican state of Michoacán.
Moran, who is from Guadalajara, Mexico, said she has visited Pátzcuaro, a city in Michoacán, many times, as her aunt lives there. There is a lake in the area that has cemeteries around it, she said.
People bring large amounts of flowers into the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried, creating beautiful displays. At night, people bring food and stay up late, sharing stories and reflecting.
“It’s just a moment to remember your loved ones who have already passed. It’s a moment of reflection. It’s a moment of understanding,” Moran said.
When Moran visited the area as a young girl, the celebrations were smaller, she said.
“Now, it’s like you can barely get into the town,” she said, explaining tourists across the world come to see the celebration.
Day of the Dead celebrations have become more popular in the last 10-15 years, she said. She thinks part of the reason is due to movies such as the 2015 James Bond movie, “Spectre,” and the 2017 Disney movie, “Coco.”
She has even seen a change where she grew up in Guadalajara.
“When I was (a) little girl, you wouldn’t see anything around anywhere in the city, in Guadalajara. Now, you could go to cemeteries in Guadalajara. Now, you can go to … all these celebrations in the little towns,” she said. “It’s a phenomenon.”
The history of “La Catrina”
Today, a common icon for Day of the Dead is “La Catrina,” a skeleton that often is dressed in fancy clothing, such as a long dress and a large hat.
Moran said the image of La Catrina was created by the artist José Guadalupe Posada in roughly the 19th century as a way to represent — and criticize — the rich people in Mexico.
At the time, Mexico was essentially split between the poor and the rich, Moran said. There was not much of a middle class.
“La Catrina was this high-end lady,” Moran said. “And also, he created more skeletons that were dancing without shoes, barley (having) clothes.”
“They represent the poor people,” she said.
The depiction was political satire, she said. However, this satirical image of La Catrina shifted over time.
Moran thinks the change happened after artist Diego Rivera represented her in one of his beautiful murals in Mexico City.
After that happened, La Catrina shifted from representing the rich to being a representation of the dead.
“It was more about not knowing who she is, but at the same time, she’s everyone,” Moran said. “No matter what, all of us have the same skeleton.”
Rivera ultimately set the stage for La Catrina to become the next most important icon for the Day of the Dead celebration, Moran said.
Today, many Day of the Dead celebrations in Colorado feature La Catrina in some way, such as by having depictions of her or hosting Catrina costume contests.
Museo de las América’s upcoming celebration on Nov. 3, for example, will have a Catrina contest.
In the Sheridan Library, there are several large, paper-mache figures of Catrinas on display in preparation for the Nov. 1 event.
The celebrations at the Sheridan Library and in Thornton on Nov. 4 will both feature Catrina costume contests.
Elements of an ofrenda
An altar and its offerings — called an “ofrenda” in Spanish — are an invitation to deceased loved ones “to be with us in spirit and to share what they liked in life,” according to The Center on Colfax.
There are four basic elements needed in an ofrenda: earth, water, wind and fire.
Earth is represented with food. Sandra Zapata, director of youth services at The Center on Colfax, said it has to be food that the loved one liked and would want to come back for.
“Pan de muerto,” which means bread of the dead, is a sweet bread that often is part of an ofrenda, according to The Mexican Museum.
In addition to food, there is often salt and water, Zapata said.
“The nourishment itself — it’s because they’ve been through a long journey,” Zapata said. “We want them to feel celebrated and want (them) to be full.”
Wind is represented by the movement of objects such as “papel picado,” which is colorful tissue paper cut into designs.
“It’s very easy to break, and it’s a reminder that life itself is very easy to break and it’s very easy for us to lose it,” Zapata said about papel picado. “So, we have to be thankful and we have to be grateful that we are still here.”
Candles represent fire, offering light that is believed by some to help spirits find their way to meet their family and friends, according to The Center on Colfax.
Ofrendas also often have incense and an arch, representing the gateway between the two worlds, Zapata said.
Sugar skulls symbolize loved ones who have passed away, according to The Mexican Museum. Sometimes, they have the name of the deceased person inscribed on the forehead.
Flowers called “cempasúchil,” or marigolds, are always on ofrendas, Zapata said.
“That’s a very big representation of this time of year when these flowers bloom and we can use them to bring beauty into the space,” they said.
Photos of loved ones are also placed on ofrendas, Zapata said.
Not a “Mexican Halloween“
For people interested in celebrating Day of the Dead for the first time, Zapata said it is important to look at the traditions and be mindful of honoring the holiday.
“Sometimes, it gets almost, like, tangled in Halloween. And those two things are so different,” Zapata said. “I just want to make sure that folks are mindful of what our traditions are versus something like Halloween, which is not culturally relevant to Day of the Dead just because it’s a different tradition, and it’s a different type of celebration.”
In the City of Thornton, Alisa Zimmerman said the city tries its best to make sure its event is not looked at as a Mexican Halloween.
“We purposefully don’t schedule it on the same weekend or near Halloween,” Zimmerman said. “And that’s worked well for us because then people know that it’s actually focused strictly on this holiday — remembering people’s deceased friends and relatives.”
Claudia Moran, of Museo de las Américas, said it is important that people research the holiday.
“It is a very unique type of celebration,” she said. “You cannot compare it with anything else.”
Laura Beacom said Day of the Dead is a “culmination of a lot of traditions that have been combined going back hundreds of years.”
Beacom said she likes that Day of the Dead reminds people that death is part of life.
“It’s not to be feared,” she said. “The nature of love in our souls is eternal, and the material world and the spiritual world … exist at the same place, at the same time.”
Zapata’s favorite part of Day of the Dead is hearing people’s stories about the people they have loved and lost.
“There’s such a connection in telling stories and telling other people’s stories and making sure that the folks that maybe have passed are not forgotten,” Zapata said. “Passing those traditions of talking about the people that we love kind of keeps them around longer, even if other folks didn’t meet them. It’s about the history that we don’t want to forget about.”