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The weeks leading up to the first days of November prompt an annual tradition for Flo Hernández-Ramos: the construction of her Día de los Muertos ofrenda, or Day of the Dead altar, to honor friends and family who’ve passed away.
The 72-year-old Denver resident, born and raised in Lamar, first began observing the holiday almost 40 years ago when, on a trip to Mexico, her curiosity was sparked by folk art. Her Mexican-American parents never previously celebrated “because, in Mexico, it was a very Indigenous celebration at first. Now, it’s spread out throughout the world.”
From then on, her family would gather for a dinner on Nov. 2. Her mom would also help her set up the yearly altar by making paper marigolds, a flower “thought to attract the souls of the dead to the ofrendas prepared for them.”
When her mother died, “it became a very personal holiday for me,” Hernández-Ramos said.
Now, on her altar — which she describes as “not traditional” — she places Mr. Goodbar candy for her mom and beer for her dad. “I just put on there whatever makes me feel good.”
Hernández-Ramos is meeting more people who partake in the tradition of personal altars, which she considers “more important” than public events.
“To me, it doesn’t matter how you put up an altar,” she said. “It’s the sentiment that’s behind it. It’s the honoring that’s behind it. And it’s the wonderful memories.”
Hernández-Ramos is one of many in the Mile High City and beyond to celebrate her Mexican roots during Día de los Muertos. Colorado is home to an estimated 891,760 residents of Mexican descent — the largest Hispanic or Latino subgroup in the state, according to 2020 data by the U.S. Census Bureau.
But, Día de los Muertos shouldn’t be misconstrued as a Latin American Halloween. The holiday dates back centuries to the Indigenous people of ancient Mesoamerica. It was tied to All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2 when the Spanish forcibly colonized the native civilizations, according to the Smithsonian Institute.
Typically, the first day honors deceased children, while the second is for adults.
“This is what I would call a borrowed tradition” from the ancient Mexica, or Aztecs, and the Maya, said Adrianna Abarca, founder and board chair of the Latino Cultural Arts Center. These people once respectively populated what is now southern Mexico and Guatemala — areas that primarily practiced the observance.
When their custom was enmeshed with Catholicism, it became a hybrid holiday, and is even more so now. Colorado’s iteration of Día de los Muertos is more closely tied to celebrations in California than Mexico, Abarca said.
Although she grew up in Denver, she lived in San Francisco for five years in the 1980s where she witnessed “the genesis of Day of the Dead in the U.S.”
The processions, community altars, painted faces and more all stem from the Golden State’s Chicano population, which is a chosen identifier for some Mexican-Americans, Abarca said.
She also described the holiday as “more socio-political in the U.S.,” as the nation grapples with issues around death in the past and present, including the AIDS crisis, the Central American wars and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even an altered tradition is “still a tradition, and it’s important to keep family and communities united,” she said.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Carlos Martinez, president and CEO of the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado, recalls how his parents, who hail from Purepero in Michoacán, adjusted their Día de los Muertos customs after moving to the U.S.
In Mexico, their practices included building a home altar before visiting the cemetery and holding a picnic at the family gravesite on the holiday itself, with mariachis playing for the deceased.
In the U.S., Martinez’s mom instead passed down stories about relatives to her children, and created small home altars.
“Each generation will go ahead and make it its own, but the thing that’s wonderful about it is that it’s being passed on in one form or another,” Martinez said.
The Latino Cultural Arts Center’s Abarca notes that Colorado’s Latino population is unique because the bulk is made up of either newly-arrived Mexicans or Mexican-Americans rooted here for several generations. In the past two to three decades, more Central and South Americans, as well as Caribbeans, have joined the mix.
While commonalities should be embraced, “it’s really important not to put us all in one basket,” Abarca said, pointing to distinctions in food, cultural dress, music, dance and more.
The Latino Cultural Arts Center offers outreach and education on Día de los Muertos through Ofrendas, a program funded through 2023. Workshops gather attendees of all ages to create calaveras, or sugar skulls, decorate saint candles, learn Huichol yarn painting and more.
She encourages the community to push back against the most “disturbing trend” around the holiday — its commercialization — by using handmade or natural items on their altars, instead of mass-produced products.
Yolanda Ortega of Westminster maintains a tiny altar year-round, and builds additional ones for Día de los Muertos, decked with photos, candles, marigolds and the deceased’s favorite foods and spirits, such as tequila and wine.
When loved ones pass away and take places on her altar, it’s “part of that grieving,” which Ortega describes as bittersweet, but healthy. “It’s a way to bring them back” in one’s mind and heart, she added.
Because her father served in the U.S. Air Force, she spent most of her childhood transient or in Panama.
Ortega didn’t celebrate Día de los Muertos until she moved to Denver, joining its Chicano movement and Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center. Her mother, who’s originally from the northwest Mexican state of Durango, “was very, very happy that I discovered it on my own.”
Ortega, a radio co-host for KUVO Radio’s “Canción Mexicana” show, has now resided in Colorado for 50 years. With the popularity of the 2017 animated film, “Coco” — an introduction to Día de los Muertos for many adolescent viewers — “I see the younger people embracing it,” she said.
“I always worry that it’s a fad, you know, and that the significance gets lost, but I’m seeing a lot of celebrations,” Ortega added.
For her, the holiday of remembrance ushers in Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s — a harbinger of the “season of light and family.”
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