A tour through Día de los Muertos altars on Cherokee Street
It’s a quiet night on Cherokee street where Minerva Lopez has lived for the past decade. She scans the blocks and breathes a heavy sigh.
“It makes me sad being here today,” Lopez laments in Spanish. “In California we would have had a huge party. Two hundred thousand people would take to the streets to celebrate Día de los Muertos.”
Originally from San Diego, Lopez acknowledges it’s an unfair critique of the small turnout on Cherokee, and in the St. Louis region generally — California's Latino population was roughly 10 times the size of Missouri's in 2015. She shrugs it off. It’s only the first night of the holiday, and even though there aren’t parades with thousands of people, there are still hints all over Cherokee that people are celebrating.
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a celebration born from the religious practices of indigenous groups in the heartlands of Mexico, and their resistance to Spanish colonial rule. It is observed the first two nights of November — when the dead make the long trip back to earth to be with the living. People build altars to welcome their loved ones home, complete with photographs, food, drink, and other recognizable symbols like sugar skulls, papel picado (paper cut outs) and marigold flowers.
Even though some of the altars in her neighborhood don’t conform to the standards Lopez is used to, she says that captures the beauty of the celebration. No two altars are the same because everyone has their own way of celebrating.
“All the altars have some of the same symbols, but none are the same. Every person has their own distinct ideas of how to build an altar, some will be big and intricate ones, others will be more simple,” Lopez explains in Spanish. “The most important part is the preservation of the culture; it doesn’t matter where or when, as long as people remember where they’re from. As long as we continue celebrating, it will never die.”
“Altars have various elements right, the candles, the pictures, the skull figures, the food,” says Lopez. “But they’re made to call your attention to death, and to create a space for all these people who had rich lives and contributed a lot while they were here.”
Traditionally, Día de los Muertos celebrations use marigolds, or cempasuchil flowers. “We use them to draw the deceased, to guide them with the scent and the color of the flowers,” Lopez explains.
“These breads are called lágrimas,” explains Refugio Vasquez, owner of Diana's Bakery on Cherokee Street. The entire shop is decorated for Día de los Muertos. 'Lágrimas' is Spanish for tears. “It's named that way for the tears shed over death, but they can also look like crossed bones.”
“[Lighting] the candles illuminates the altar to guide the spirits as they find their way to us,” says Lopez.
“Another reminder that we all eventually die. They can be given out as gifts, or just reminders of [our own mortality],” Lopez explains.
“[They’re] dedicating their altar to people in the family, both sides of the family," said Lopez. It's not uncommon for altars to honor celebrities or historical figures who have passed on. On Cherokee many altars featured pictures of Mexican singer and songwriter Juan Gabriel, who died this august.
“This is what we all are in the end," Lopez says gathering a small handful of dirt from the altar in her hand. "While we’re here on earth we have to live with purpose, because this is where we all end up.”
La Calavera Catrina
“She comes from a drawing from the cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada," Lopez says. "And he was demonstrating how everyone is the same when we leave this world, we become skeletons — whether you have money or not. When he drew her in the early 1900s, it was to make fun of the Mexican bourgeoisie, because no matter how rich they were, we all end up the same when we die.”