Tag Archives: altar

Marigolds and Altars: Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico

The campo (countryside) is a blanket of tiny yellow flowers called cempasuchitl or wild marigolds that come up in southern Mexico this time of year.  It’s less than a week before Day of the Dead here in Oaxaca. Preparations have begun.


My friend Guadalupe was at the casita yesterday and she explained that the intense yellow color of the wild marigold signals the dead to return to earth for Dia de los Muertos. That’s why they are a prominent part of altars.

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The dead like color, she says, and the strong scent of the marigolds. Lupe also said that the bees make a deep yellow honey from the wild marigolds this time of year and this can be special addition to the altar.

MuertosBread-2I started to gather and build my altar yesterday. It is not yet complete. Front and center is a photo of our dad who passed in 1997.  As I duplicated the photo, cut foam board and secured it to the photo, I had a sense of well-being, connection and loving memory. It is a meaningful experience to make a memory altar to honor a loved one who is no longer here.

MarigoldAltar12-5Our dad was a teacher in the Los Angeles City School District for over thirty years. He went out on strike once to protest a wage cut. I remember our mom was scared because there would be no income until he went back to work.  Our family was still young and with three children. Even so, he chose to stick to his principles. He was the son of immigrants and knew the importance of a fair wage and decent working conditions. This is our favorite photo of him.

This altar is a tribute to him.


It is somewhat typical of Teotitlan del Valle altars. It has the favorite food and beverages that the deceased liked. Bread. Chocolate. Fruit. Nuts. A soft drink and/or a bottle of beer. Perhaps a bowl of atole. Our parents weren’t drinkers, but on occasion our dad would enjoy a beer. I’m sure in his lifetime he had a Victoria when we went out to eat at a Mexican restaurant. So here it is along with my artisanal mezcal collection in garafones (hand-blown bottles).


There is more to add. The palm fronds used for arches that allow the dead to enter earth from the underworld won’t be available until later this week. I will wait to get fresh marigolds for November 1. I’ve already prepared the copal incense burner. The aroma also helps guide the spirits home. Lupe says I need to add peanuts even though I have pecans. Maybe I’ll put a marigold arch over the front doorway.

Day of the Dead is a pre-Hispanic tradition that blends into All Saints and All Souls Days which some also mistakenly refer to in the U.S.A. as Halloween. It isn’t Halloween here, said my friend Danny Hernandez. Some of the locals are not happy that the occasion is moving away from the traditional celebration toward the commercial with spiders, bats and Jack O’Lanterns.


My experience in building this altar is to reaffirm that Day of the Dead is for anyone who wants to create something very tangible and joyful to remember a loved one. This is a personal and community tribute to the continuity of life each step of the way. In my world, I see it as ecumenical and non-denominational.

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Here in Teotitlan del Valle people will welcome their deceased into their homes on November 1 with a meal of chicken tamales with yellow mole.  On November 2 they will return to the cemetery to help guide the spirits’ return to the underworld after the 3 p.m. lunch. During this 24-hour period, they will receive visitors and make visits to family and friends with altar gifts of chocolate, Pan de Muertos, beer and mezcal to honor family and loved ones.


P.S. Weavers in Teotitlan del Valle who work with natural dyes collect cempasuchitl this time of year and hang it to dry. It makes a beautiful yellow dye on wool and silk.  When over-dyed with indigo, it is the color of the corn leaves in the photo above.


Evoking Frida Kahlo: Workshop to Make a Mixed Media Altar

Mexico is filled with altars that usually include sacred images and a Virgin of Guadalupe retablo. During Day of the Dead a family altar displays photographs of departed loved ones. We are taking this mixed media art workshop, based in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, beyond the norm to create a three-dimensional altar suitable for display. Frida Kahlo is our muse.

4 Days, February 25 – 28, 2016

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e·voke. əˈvōk/. verb

bring or recall to the conscious mind, conjure up, summon up, invoke, elicit, induce, kindle, stimulate, awaken arouse, call forth.

Frida offers us inspiration for constructing an altar about life, womanhood, loved ones, family, health issues, successes and set-backs. We hold up Frida’s image, perhaps in self-reflection, to imagine her life and its challenges and to evoke meaning for our own. We then translate these concepts into an altar or shrine that can be used for wall art, to display on a surface or to design as a shelving unit for collected objects.

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Frida was an avid collector of exvotos and perhaps you would like to merge this simple expression of thanksgiving and devotion in your work, too.

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When we think of Frida Kahlo, we may conjure up many images and words to describe her: a woman of strength, power, frailty, independence, weakness, accomplishment, talent. Biographers say she was fierce, passionate, defiant, innovative, creative, vulnerable. We know she was deformed, in pain, proud.


Your personal altar can be based on your own experience. We embrace Frida as a metaphor to jump into a new creative realm. Your altar might be a tribute to someone you love who is living or passed on. Your altar might contain a message to send or include as a gift. It can be about you, friends, family or Frida herself.


About Hollie Taylor, MFA, Workshop Leader

Hollie Taylor earned the BFA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill focusing on painting and printmaking. She then went on to the University of Georgia and received the MFA with a concentration in printmaking.

Hollie taught drawing, printmaking, painting and ceramics at the college, middle and high school levels. For over 20 years, she has taught adult workshops in handmade paper-making, screen-printing, woodcutting, photo-imaging on clay, ceramic hand-building, mixed media art and art journaling.  

She is a recipient of the North Carolina Museum of Art annual artist scholarship award. Her work is published in Art Voices South and The Village Rambler. She earned the prestigious National Board Certification for Teaching Excellence and her students placed repeatedly in national shows. 

Hollie encourages deep personal exploration, offers demonstrations and samples of finished products.  Art produced at her workshops is highly individualistic, broad ranging in style and expressive of the maker. Participants come to the table with varied past creative experiences and she accommodates fully for this range of novice to accomplished artist. She gives personal feedback and encouragement and holds informal discussions to compare intent with outcome, noting what has been learned. A workshop with Hollie is engaging and fun!

A new project for Hollie involves making a book using found family letters and archival photos from Brazil during World War II. This will become a mixed media art show installation based on composites she is rendering in Photoshop to glean new meaning from the material. 


Process and Materials

Using found objects, copies of photographs, paint, paper, memorabilia and embellishments, you will construct either a 8” x 10” three-dimensional sculptural piece or a 12” x 16” flat art wall piece.

Materials We Provide: We provide step-by-step altar-making directions and construction materials, plus selected art supplies such as self-healing cutting mats, box cutters, some acrylic inks, assorted decorative papers, handmade clay medallions and selected ephemera art associated with Frida Kahlo.

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Materials To Bring: A sharp pencil, rubber bands, assorted size small brushes, embellishments such as stamps, charms, shells, milagros, copies of photographs, textiles. Try to imagine what will symbolize the different attribute’s of your altar’s theme and bring what will enhance its meaning. After you register, we will send you a complete list of supplementary supplies to bring. Participants often share for a wider range of choice.


Resources: Hollie recommends Crafting Personal SHRINES, Using Photos, Mementos & Treasures to Create Artful Displays, by Carol Owen, Lark Books, 2004.

Our Schedule: Daily, 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. includes catered lunch  

Day One, Thursday, February 25: We look at images of altars and sacred boxes, visit church and private home altars, and talk about Frida Kahlo – her style and what she valued. You will come with a concept for your creation, and with Hollie’s guidance you will finish the design and begin to build your project.

Day Two, Friday, February 26: Continue to build your altar, wrapping it, painting it, and gluing it together to form a completed container for what will come next. You may also want to add a door and small shadow boxes to display memorabilia reflecting your concept.

Rolling on Matte Medium to seal the foam core.

Rolling on Matte Medium to seal the foam core.

Day Three, Saturday, February 27: Finish altar construction. Begin to decorate and embellish your altar with photos (copies), writing, drawing, found objects and memorabilia you have brought with you.

Day Four, Sunday, February 28: You will add the finishing touches before we hang your finished work for a group show and presentation of your piece, followed by a grand finale mezcal margarita cocktail reception.


Workshop Cost

Base Cost – Workshop Only: $495 per person, includes all instruction, materials to construct your altar or wall art, hand-outs, guided visits to family homes and churches for altar research, 4 lunches and cocktail reception. This option is designed for people who do not need lodging, and want to travel back and forth daily from Oaxaca city.

Upgrade 1 – Workshop + Share Room: $665 per person shared room with private bath en suite. Includes all of the above plus 4 nights lodging, arriving on Wednesday, February 24 and departing Sunday, February 28 by 6 p.m. Includes 4 continental breakfasts. We assign rooms in order of registrations received. Contact us for availability.

Upgrade 2 — Workshop and Private Room/Bath: $795. Includes all of the above.

How to Register

The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation to and from Oaxaca city.  We can arrange taxi pick-up and return from/to the Oaxaca airport at your own expense (approximately 280 pesos).

Reservations and Cancellations A 50% deposit is required to guarantee your spot. The last payment for the balance due (including any add-ons) shall be paid by January 6, 2016. We accept payment with PayPal only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register.  After January 6, refunds are not possible.  You may send a substitute in your place.  If you cancel before January 6, we will refund 50% of your deposit.


Required–Travel Health/Accident Insurance:  We require that you carry international accident/health/emergency evacuation insurance. Proof of insurance must be sent at least two weeks before departure.  If you do not wish to do this, we ask you email a PDF of a witnessed waiver of responsibility, holding harmless Norma Hawthorne Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. Unforeseen circumstances happen!

Workshop Details and Travel Tips.  Before the workshop begins, we will email you a map, instructions to get to the workshop site from the airport, and documents that includes extensive travel tips and information. To get your questions answered and to register, contact: oaxacaculture@me.com

This retreat is produced by Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We reserve the right to make itinerary changes and substitutions as necessary.

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Building a Dia de los Muertos Altar: Send Us Your Photos

Wherever you are, I invite you to send me your Dia de los Muertos Altar photos. They should be no larger than 150 KB and sent as an email attachment (any larger and they won’t be considered).  One photo per person!  They need to arrive in my inbox by midnight, November 1, 2013.  I will ask our Day of the Dead Photograph Expedition participants to select 10 for publication here!  Meanwhile, here’s the start for my altar!

Casita Altar

For my Virgin of Guadalupe, I have a flying saint sending blessings over the campo.  It is a lithograph by Oaxaca artist Francisco Olivera.  Of course, there is a bottle of mezcal and soon we will add a photo my father who died in 1997.  My sister is bringing it on October 30, just in time.


My friend Lupe went out in front of the casita where I live and cut fresh cempasuchitl for the vase. I added chocolate made by Magdalena, Oaxaca mandarin oranges, and two candles.  Lupe added the little apples that she says taste like strawberries.  There is a field of agave for mezcal next door.


When I’m in Oaxaca tomorrow, I’ll get papel picado cut paper streamers, bread, nuts and copal incense to add.  We will need candles under the table and a palm arch so that the spirits can enter and exit with ease.  There are three levels to every Day of the Dead altar.

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As I get ready for the photography workshop, I went out into the fields near where I live to practice my f-stops in the late afternoon light.  Here are some photos to share with you.

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Day of the Dead Altar by Duke University Latino/a Studies Students

About 40 students gathered at Duke University last night to build a traditional Oaxaca Day of the Dead altar with Eric Chavez Santiago and his sister Janet, visitors from Oaxaca, Mexico.  The students are members of Mi Gente, a group that is sponsored by the Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South at Duke.


The altar is integral to the exhibit Days of the Dead: From Mexican Roots to Present Day Practices in the U.S.  that opens tonight, October 2, 2012, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Jameson Gallery, Friedl Building, East Campus, Duke University.  It is open to the public.  It is free. Parking is free on campus after 5 p.m.


One important part of the exhibit, in addition to the 27 photographs on display representing practices throughout Oaxaca, is a mural called Day of the Dead Diaspora.  Here we see how traditions are carried on by immigrant populations in the United States, from large cities to small towns, from the rural south to the chilly northeast to the midwest corn belt to the western plains and beyond.  Print and internet news clips feature celebrations that are representative of our diversity and the strength that derives from this with Anglos, Mexicans and African-Americans celebrating together.

The exhibit is designed as an educational experience for not only university students.  Elementary, middle and high school teachers and students have participated in and invited to the exhibit that will run through November 6.


Eric and Janet began the evening talking about the history of Day of the Dead as a pre-Hispanic indigenous practice that was originally held in July, marked in the Aztec calendar.  With the Spanish conquest, the priests moved the celebration to coincide with All Saints and All Souls Day (what we know as Halloween) in traditional European/Spanish/medieval practices.  Today, the celebration combines both indigenous and Spanish traditions.

They then went on to discuss how their family practices the tradition in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, noting that each village will do things differently and that certain events will be held on different days depending upon the place.


Janet and Eric then involved students in the altar construction with them, guiding them and working along with them together in the process.  It was a satisfying cultural learning experience.  The students told Eric that Duke has a warm, welcoming multicultural environment.  Many universities throughout the United States are attending to creating a multicultural environment through Latino/a Studies programs, faculty support and celebratory events in which all are welcome to take part.  This was my experience when I worked at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, too.

We hope you can join us at Duke tonight for this celebration.  The Chavez Santiago family will be offering their naturally dyed hand-woven rugs for sale, and the beautiful photographs on exhibit are offered for sale as well.  All proceeds from the photography sales will be donated to related educational programs in Durham, NC, and Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.  We are pleased to be a co-sponsor of this event.  Thanks to Jenny Snead Williams, executive director, Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South for organizing this!