Beginning in pre-Columbian times in the Zapotec culture, the dead are remembered through ofrendas (offerings). Each year the souls of the dead return to earth to partake with the living the foods they enjoyed when they were alive. The ofrenda rests on an altar dedicated to the dead relatives who are only able to return if their path is lit and they can find their way through the underworld. The ofrenda and altar is constructed around the elements of underworld, earth and sky. Here is the interpretation, as told by Eric Chavez Santiago.
Level One — Sky: represents religion and the sacred.
Level Two — Earth: this is the main part of the altar since it contains most of the characteristics elements including photos of the people remembered, food, fruits and beverages. This area is divided into four equal parts representing the four elements of the earth and the four seasons of the year. Summer is represented by the image of the person remembered, the salt cross, fruits, bread and food, sugar skulls, flowers, and chocolate. A glass of water or mezcal represents spring. Fall is represented with candles, fire, which is necessary to mark the path of light to guide the dead from the underworld to earth.
Level Three — Underworld: This the the place where the dead and the souls of purgatory rest. It is the road towards the world of the living where the dead need a guide represented by the candles marking the four cardinal points. This is represented with copal incense to purify the atmosphere, a vase of white flowers to symbolize purity and tenderness, and yellow flowers to symbolize richness, and a small carpet as an offering for rest.
The ofrenda that Eric and Janet Chavez Santiago constructed at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art was in honor of their grandfather, Jose Chavez Ruiz, a master weaver who died at the age of 85 in 2006. He took the family design of the caracol (snail) to the next level, achieving a special technique to create a difficult to execute curved design, replicating those carved in the Zapotec temples of 700 AD. The Chavez Santiago family continues to create tapestries in the traditions of their forefathers.