While Dia de Muertos is a widely observed tradition across Mexico, rituals are shaped by the geographical regions and cultural intersections of its people. 

For Ernesto Hernández Olmos, a multidisciplinary artist from Cuicatlan, Oaxaca, where fruit grows, sometimes out of control, this meant that fruit was always at the center of his family’s ofrenda (altar).

“My grandmother used to say you always have to offer the best, the biggest fruit. It works like a spiritual fertilizer that will serve for the next crop”, said Hernández Olmos, Tuesday night after leading a community ofrenda ritual during a Dia de Muertos celebration at South Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center.  

Like many people who celebrate, Hernandez learned the rituals from watching their elders and carried them to the United States, where he has lived for over two decades. As the festivities take a more significant hold outside of Mexico, his practices have changed and adapted. 

Earlier in the day, Hernandez built the altar’s main structure near the center’s entrance door, with its traditional three tiers, colorful pecked paper, candied skulls made of white sugar, and bright orange marigolds (known as cempazuchitl in Mexico), cups of water, candles and copal burners. Around 8 p.m., Hernandez led La Peña visitors in a ceremony to finalize the altar, where people placed pictures of their deceased loved ones along a small candle. People set up hot food and more fruit and filled the cups with water and other beverages. All the candles were lit while Hernandez sang Canciones de Muerte (Death songs), soulful folk songs from Oaxaca.

People remembered their loved ones in silence and comforted each other. The brief, solemn moment was followed by an open invitation to come inside the center to eat, drink, laugh and sing the rest of the night. Joy is also a fundamental part of the Dia de Muertos celebration. This tradition meshes mesoamerican Indigenous beliefs about life and death and religious concepts of the harvest feast.

Hernandez, who lives in Oakland, shares what his elders taught him about death, the fundamentals of an ofrenda, and how his relationship with traditions changed as the celebration is embraced across the world through popular culture and the Mexican diaspora. 

(This interview was translated from Spanish and edited for clarity purposes.)

Ernesto Hernández Olmos, a multidisciplinary artist from Cuicatlan, Oaxaca and East Bay Resident, performs at La Peña Center on Dia de Muertos, Nov. 1, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

How did you learn about the rituals and traditions around Dia de Muertos?

You learn at a very young age. I knew the practices through my grandmother and mother. For them, this season was very intimate and personal. It allowed the return of their spirits, and extraordinary things would happen. Not everyone, but most people can feel the smell of your grandpa, your grandmother, a physical reaction as if they were there. Elders said: not because you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. They come, and they are hungry. We leave so much food, light, and water in our offerings because they no longer have them.

It is painful to carry unfinished business with your loved ones. This is a chance to greet them, say goodbye, and forgive them. With my grandmother, the celebration was a profoundly private affair. We would hunker down at home for three days making these rituals with care, and only after that, join the games and watch the movies. 

You mentioned that you must build the ofrenda, like the one made here at La Peña, with much love and effort. What is necessary for an altar?

In our tradition in Oaxaca, we always smoke the altar with copal first to ask permission. All the ofrendas should be smoked, a quick pass with copal smoke. From there, it will depend on your traditions and the region. Even in Oaxaca, it’s different if you are from the mountains, valley, or the Isthmus.   

It needs light, so the candle is super essential; you can’t miss that. Light symbolizes the guide for the spirit crossing (to our world). It will find its way to your house through it. Each of your loved ones needs a candle for your grandfather, your grandmother, your uncle, etc. 

Hot food is essential, unique dishes, that is why we make mole, tamales, pozole, whatever. As it is tradition, guests eat first. In this case, your faithful departed are fed, and then we all eat. We share an evening. 

Community altar outside of La Peña Cultural Center, where neighbors and community members brought photos of their loved ones to place on the altar. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

How has it been for you to experiment with the shift in the culture to a broader acceptance of Dia de Muertos and other Mexican traditions through movies like Coco while being careful of not falling into commodification?

It has been a massive phenomenon because of that film, but also from the fact that UNESCO declared (the festivity) Humanity Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. 

Also, through migration, it transcended that we have a very different way of seeing death. In our cultures, death is part of life. In this culture (of the United States), death and dying are bad or scary. Our grandparents teach us that death is the purification of the spirit to return to its origin as pure energy. So it’s like erasing your entire cassette and blanking it out to record another story.

In Mexico, Dia de Muertos is both a personal affair and a community one. It’s also a celebration. The ofrenda happens at home and again in public squares. That is why one goes to the cemetery and shares food. Here (in the U.S.), it can be challenging to detach paraphernalia and the festival (aspect) from tradition. 

For me, it goes back to my altar at home. I need to make my ofrenda, spend time with my spirits, cry and thank them, forgive them, forgive myself. Ultimately, we have to remember something; we are our living ancestors. Our genes and DNA are also theirs, but we are the living ones. Mending our relationship with the past, you tend to your life. 

Cempazuchil flowers at La Peña Cultural Center. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Ximena Natera is Berkeleyside’s photojournalist. Her position is a partnership with Report for America and CatchLight. Born and raised in Mexico City, Natera is a founding member of Pie de Pagina, an...