Día de los Muertos Altar Workshop Recap

On November 1, the William H. Hannon Library hosted a workshop to celebrate Día de los Muertos. In collaboration with Self Help Graphics, and sponsored by LMU’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, LMU’s Chicano Latino Student Services, the Latino Faculty Association, and the Latinx Staff Association, more than 25 in-person and virtual attendees had the opportunity to learn about the history of the holiday and how to make their own “shoebox altar.” We asked our student assistants Kaylee, Lia, and Vero to share with us their experience attending the workshop.

From Kaylee

Kaylee and friends with shoebox altars
Kayle (left) with other workshop attendees

While I had heard of Día de los Muertos, I had never participated in any of the practices associated with it. So attending the Shoebox Altar Workshop was a great cultural experience for me. Alongside my friends, I made an altar from a recycled shoebox for my maternal and paternal grandfathers. At the beginning of the workshop, I didn’t know if there was an objectively “correct” way to make an altar. Thanks to our facilitator from Self-Help Graphics, I quickly learned that we could have artistic freedom when decorating the shoebox, as long as we included certain decorative features, like a reference to all four elements (earth, wind, fire and air).

I enjoyed seeing how everyone customized their altars using the given materials. Some people focused on creating designs with tissue paper, while others took advantage of the buttons and paper cut-outs to decorate any empty spaces in their altars. For my altar, I tried (and failed) to create simplistic trees from green pipe cleaners to represent earth. I also included a paper crane in my altar, both as a nod to my ethnic background and a reference to the element of air.

The workshop offered us a perfect moment for reflection. In our busy, chaotic everyday lives, it can be difficult to find a moment to relax and think about what we have. The workshop gave me a moment to thank my grandfathers and other late ancestors for their hard work and sacrifices. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today, nor would I have been gifted with so many great opportunities in life, like the change to attend university.

After learning more about Día de los Muertos at the workshop, I was reminded of Obon Odori, a Japanese festival for the dead held in late summer. Like Día de los Muertos, Obon Odori is held to honor the dead as they return from the spirit realm for a night of festivities. I think it’s beautiful that both cultures portray death as another part of life, not something entirely separate. Those who have passed are still a part of our everyday lives, even if we may not physically see them, so we should always keep them in our minds and hearts.

From Lia

Lia, wearing mask, beside a shoebox altar
Lia standing beside her shoebox altar

Although I am not accustomed to celebrating Día de los Muertos, having the opportunity to design a shoebox altar dedicated to my paternal grandfather was a meaningful experience that I plan to continue in years to come. I am grateful to the Hannon Library staff, especially Ray Andrade, for providing resources and guiding me through the process of creating these altars that celebrate those who we have lost.

For those who missed the workshop on creating these altars, here are some of the steps I followed to build my shoebox altar. First, I glued the side of the shoebox lid to the side of the shoebox such that the two indentations were facing the same direction. Participants may optionally paint their shoebox; however, I chose not to as I liked the lavender color of my box. Next, I selected and printed out a picture of a deceased loved one, who in my case was my grandfather. After displaying this photo in the middle of my altar, I decorated around it with a variety of items including tissue paper marigold flowers, battery-operated candles, and some of my grandfather’s favorite foods like chocolate, apples, and wine. Some other decoration materials that could be used are papel picado (perforated paper), calaveras (skulls), ribbon, yarn, tissue paper, and construction paper. The decoration process is up to the designer as we all create ofrendas to commemorate and remember our deceased loved ones.

I strongly encourage everyone to create a shoebox altar next year to celebrate friends and family. Creators can even combine their shoebox altars with others to create one larger ofrenda. In the lobby of the Hannon Library, I displayed my shoebox altar with another student’s shoebox altar to create a more extravagant altar. We decorated this altar with many items including sugar skulls, paper mache skulls, skellingtons, a cross, string lights, tissue paper marigolds, and papel picado. By combining individual shoebox altars, it is easy to create a beautiful ofrenda to honor all the people we have lost. The celebration of Día de los Muertos is a strong reminder for all to love and cherish those around us as well as those who have passed.

From Vero

Vero and altar
Vero holding shoebox altar

Día de los Muertos has been a time-honored tradition in my family for years.

It was my abuelita (grandmother) who introduced the story behind the altar to honor our ancestors who’ve since passed. Every year, she sets up a collage of photographs filled with different faces from different times—some smiling, some stern—on a small table with a single, lit Virgen candle. Also on the makeshift altar are flowers and a cup of water was used as pseudo-stands for the photographs without frames. Bedridden with age and aches, she wasn’t able to make one this year. I thought of the elements necessary to make an authentic ofrenda, like my abuelita makes every year without fail and what the instructions recommended for materials to make my own shoebox altar. What came out of it was an amalgamation of these two inspirations.

Originally, I ran into difficulties with affixing components to the shoebox and what the best method would suit the materials. After brainstorming and gathering materials and adhesives I thought would work best, my mother came into the room. Needless to say, the altar became a family affair between mother and daughter—daughter and grand-daughter of our family’s altar-maker.

From marigold-making, to sifting through figurines in storefronts for the perfect scene to depict, I took on a creative project with as much gusto and planning, as you do—my mother guiding me to and recommending components. Bright orange tissue paper was cut into squares, layered by eight, then folded one way then the other until it reached the other edge: valley, mountain, valley, mountain. My mother cut a triangle into the folded edges to make the illusion of “petals” marigolds are known for having. Folded and cut orange tissue paper was wrapped with a pipe cleaner by the center, fanned out on either side, then pinched and lifted towards the center and up.

When I returned home for the weekend, we showed abuelita the ofrenda I had made. It sits in the spot she would set up hers, covered with photographs of our loved ones.