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Latina/o/x Studies

Celebrando Latina/o/x heritage

Elements of an Ofrenda (text)

Elements of a Día de los Muertos Ofrenda

  • Papel picado serves as a colorful and meaningful trim: black represents death, purple means grief of mourning, pink is celebration, white symbolizes hope and yellow stands for the sun. 
  • Sugar skulls, or calaveras, add a lighthearted touch, for both the dead and the living.
  • Cempasuchitl, the Aztec term for "marigolds" is the traditional flower used to honor the dead. It reflects the fleeting nature or life. Their aroma helps lure a spirit back. 
  • Photograph(s) of the person(s) the altar is dedicated to help loved ones to remember them while they were in the prime of their lives.
  • Pan de muerto or "bread of the dead" is a sweet treat. Found at most panaderias, the round loaf is topped with a skull and crossbones. 
  • Candles represent the cardinal directions and provide a lighted path to this world. 
  • Salt, a symbol of purification, is for the dead to season the food you've offered them. 
  • Christian iconography such as a Virgin Mary and Holy Cross reveal the holiday's European roots. 
  • The deceased's favorite knickknacks, tools, or toys (for children) create a familiar setting for their return. 

Four main elements of nature are found on an altar:

  • Wind: The papel picado also lets loved one know when the spirits have arrived.
  • Earth: The soul is nourished by favorite family dishes that represent the crops of the earth. Common edibles include fruit, mole, chocolate, and atole. 
  • Fire: Visiting souls are illuminated from the shadow of death by candles. Each one represents a departed soul. Additional candles are added for forgotten souls.

Día de los Muertos

Google Day of the Dead 2019 artwork depicting the finely dress skeletal woman La Calavera Catrina with her signature hat with feathers and flowers


Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a national holiday in Mexico and is observed in Latinx communities throughout the United States on November 1-2. Many Mexicans believe that the spirits of the dead return to enjoy a visit with their friends and relatives on this day. Long before sunrise, people stream into the cemeteries loaded with candles, flowers, and food that is often shaped and decorated to resemble the symbol of death.

In many homes people set up ofrendas, or altars, to the departed. These are decked with lighted candles, special food, and whatever the dead enjoyed when they were alive.

Text Source: Holidays around the world. (2017). ProQuest Ebook Central

Image Source: Google Day of the Dead 2019

Elements of an Ofrenda

Dia de los muertos altar infographic. Contents are transcribed in the Elements of an Ofrenda (text) box on the left.


Coronilla, S. and Zisk. M (2013). Day of the Dead: From pre-Columbian roots to today. The Orange County Register. Retrieved from

Google Doodle. Retrieve from

Valdez, A. (2009). A Dia de los Muertos altar. Texas Monthly37(11), 46.

Create a Virtual Altar

Dia de los Muertos virtual alter with three tiers in front of a colorful floral background and a papel picado banner hanging across the top.

Use this background to create your own personal virtual altar. Designs created by Marilu Salcedo, Library Services Specialist.