Día de los Muertos altar

Anatomy of an Altar

For Día de los Muertos, thoughtful ofrendas welcome the return of beloved spirits and spare them from dying a third death.

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Día de los Muertos altar

Día de los Muertos, aka “Day of the Dead,” is creeping up on us, Nov. 1 and 2, so we asked Irene Rodriguez of Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs to explain the meaning and traditions of the Mexican holiday.

“We make altars, or ofrendas, to honor our loved ones who have passed away,” she says. “There’s a well-known master altar maker, Ofelia Esparza, and she said you die three times. The first time is the physical part, the second is when they bury you, and the third is when you’re forgotten. The altar is about always remembering your loved ones and passing down traditions to the next generation.”

Some ofrendas remain on display all year, but only during the holiday do the marigolds, salt, food, and lights welcome the spirits.

Rodriguez built this altar with Marnie Navarro of Raices Cultura and other members of the CV Days of Los Muertos, a collaborative of nonprofit organizations that program for Día de los Muertos. Here’s a closer look:


Top (left to right): Artist Bennie Alvarez’s painting, Veiled Lady, honors transgendered people who died in their struggle; the train and American flag represent Rodriguez’s parents, Jesus, a veteran, and Rafaela, who loved trains; Alvarez’s three skulls symbolize heaven (note the halo and white flower), earth (a traditional sugar skull), and hell (the Mickey Mouse-shaped cactus playfully celebrates life); the portrait and work belt represent Daniel Dueñas, the late construction worker whose daughter, Andrea Calderon, lives in Desert Hot Springs; the rosé, prickly pear cactus, and red rose commemorate Alvarez’s dear friend, Tony Garcia; and the painting is Alvarez’s tribute to Frida Kahlo, “a painter,” he says, “who was always her authentic self and is a queer icon.”

Middle: Portraits honor Richard Cromwell III, the late Desert Hot Springs resident and general manager and CEO of Sunline Transit Agency; Rodriguez’s grandparents, Manuel and Guadalupe Navarro; Rafaela and Jesus Rodriguez; Martin Ortiz, father of Oralia “Yaya” Ortiz of Coachella-based Culturas Music+Arts, whose church once hosted Día de los Muertos events for Raices Cultura; and Rafaela and Jesus Rodriguez. A catrina doll shows that the rich and fashionable die, too.

Bottom: The water, salt, and food items — fruit, tacos from Zapopan Mexican Food in Desert Hot Springs, and breads from Las Tres Conchitas Bakery in Coachella — greet the returning souls. Photographs honor the late longtime Mission Springs Water District board member Jack Webb and his wife, Barbara, and Ben Riddle (shown with his daughter, Brianna).

The marigolds and papel picado (tissue paper decoration) are from Tru Self Care Boutique in Palm Springs and Coachella.