Foto: Kianni Figuereo.
In the photo Karina Jimenez, owner of the Mexican restaurant Los cuatro soles and one of the people in charge of donating part of the elements of the altar together with the Association of Mexican Business Owners of Philadelphia. Credit: Kianni Figuereo.

Altar created in South Philly in honor of Día de los Muertos

Artist Reyna Guzman Casarez dedicated the altar to the migrant community and loved ones who have passed away.


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In front of the former Edward W. Bok Vocational School in South Philadelphia, a diverse group of artists, children, youth, adults and community neighbors gathered on November 1 to celebrate the traditional Día de los Muertos.

At the entrance of the building, artist and community leader Reyna Guzman Casarez installed a seven-tiered altar dedicated to the migrant community and the faithful departed. Each of the elements that were placed on the altar represent pre-Hispanic Mexican culture and traditions.

"Día de los Muertos, more than a celebration, is a feeling of faith and of encounter with those we love," Guzman Casarez assured to AL DIA.

One of the key elements is the wooden guacal, known in Mexico as an instrument for transporting fruits, vegetables and legumes. Guzman Casarez also added elements such as the corn husk in the shape of the cempasúchil flower, as well as pan de muerto, sugar skulls, candles, drinks, petate and salt. Each material presented in the installation was donated by the Association of Mexican Business Owners of Philadelphia, Bok Bar and The Welcoming Center.


"I feel very happy because this allows us to leave our children what is really an inheritance. It is not an inheritance of a house or a car, but it is an inheritance of beliefs, faith and culture," explained the artist, who is originally from Hidalgo, Mexico.

In addition to the altar, the event also featured a performance to remember the deceased children. Among the characters were the eternal bride in love who one day plans to meet her lover, the grandmother who is already in "heaven" and the children who have lost their siblings. Also present were a dance group that came from Delaware to "help pave the way for the departed".

At the end of the artistic piece, a group of girls and mothers brought joy around the altar through a folkloric dance. Teacher Andrea Garcia, who came from Puebla to Philadelphia 5 years ago, was in charge of putting together the dance using Mexican folklore.

The organization of the event was a joint effort between the community and neighbors from North and South Philly, and the Association of Mexican Business Owners, Bok Bar and The Welcoming Center.

What should an altar have?

Día de los Muertos is one of Mexico's most important traditional holidays. Each altar is composed in a different way because the creativity of the family depends a lot, as well as the tastes of the deceased relatives and friends. This is why there are different ways to create an altar and carry out the ofrendas. There are those who build an altar with only two levels, others with three and some with seven, the latter being the original representation that was made in pre-Hispanic times.

On the first level, the saint to whom the person is devoted is placed. The second level is dedicated to the souls in purgatory. According to Guzman Casarez, it is here where the deceased obtains permission to leave.

To purify the souls coming from purgatory and, above all, for the children coming from the journey, salt is placed on the third step of the altar. Already on the fourth, bread is added, which represents the Eucharist. While on the fifth floor, the favorite dishes and drinks of the deceased are placed as an offering, so that he/she can have a rest without hunger. In addition to placing the photos of those relatives who are being honored on the altar.

Finally, a cross made of seeds, fruits, lime, flowers and/or candles is placed.

The meanings of each element

Water: Source of life that is served to the souls to quench their thirst after a long journey.

Candles: The "fire" that will give the light to illuminate the path of the souls from their tomb to their ancient homes.

Papel picado: They symbolize the wind and the joy of the festivity.

Flowers: The cempasúchil petals, due to their strong aroma, should guide the souls to their destination. They are placed in front of the door up to the altar. The white ones represent the sky, the yellow ones the earth and the purple ones to make litter and clean the place of evil spirits.

Petate: This is used for the traveling souls to rest after a long journey.

Figure of Xoloitzcuintle: The Xoloitzcuintle is a breed of dog native to Mexico, who in ancient times helped guide the souls on their way to the gates of Mictlan. They also serve to cheer the arrival of the souls of deceased children.

Pan de muerto: Its circular shape represents the cycle of life and death and its four "bones" symbolize the four cardinal points.

Sugar skulls: It alludes to the fact that death is always present.

Drinks and food: Alcoholic beverages (or not) and the favorite dishes of the deceased are prepared and placed so they can get to eat after a long journey.


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