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On Dia De Los Muertos, This Altar Is A Celebration Of A Life And A Parting Gift

Oct 31, 2019

Ruth de la Torre with her altar during last year's Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration in Carbondale. She passed away in July; this year, her sisters Maria and Imelda will honor her with an altar.
Credit Maria de la Torre

The Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is November 2. It honors loved ones who have died; family members build altars to those who have passed, and tradition holds that the deceased can cross back into our world and join their living relatives that night. 

Carbondale hosts its own celebration Friday. For two sisters, Maria and Imelda de la Torre, building an altar has taken on special significance this year.

Maria and Imelda were born in Mexico, but grew up in the U.S. Maria says they were intrigued by Dia de los Muertos, which she calls a "beautiful tradition."

 

"I always wanted to go back to Mexico for it, but I never do," she said.

 

The de la Torre's older sister Ruth was a teacher in Mexico. Ruth had taught her classes how to build altars, and while she was in Carbondale last year, she did the same for Maria and Imelda, helping them build their first altar for the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration at Carbondale's Third Street Center.

"She was here, and she was like, 'Let’s do it! Let’s sign up and take a space and do it,'" said Maria. "She was the leader. She made it a reality."

Ruth's enthusiasm for helping her sisters learn more about a tradition that celebrates death was remarkable. She herself had cancer. She had come to the U.S. for treatment.

The de la Torre family with their Dia de los Muertos altar last year.
Credit Maria de la Torre

Ruth de la Torre passed away in July at the age of 41. This year, Maria and Imelda are taking what she taught them about altars to build one that honors her. 

Imelda says Ruth didn't talk much about death. She wonders what was going through Ruth's mind as they built last year's altar together. 

"Maybe it passed through her mind that she might be part of it next year.  I know it passed through my mind. She was pretty sick," Imelda said.

Maria says that, until last year, she always thought it would be easy to put together an altar. 

 

"I just thought, put together some cool decorations and some photos and that’s it," she said.

 

Ruth taught the sisters the symbolism behind the altars, which traditionally have either three levels, representing heaven, earth and hell, or seven, as in the seven levels of hell in Dante's Inferno. Colorful banners, called papel picado, represent wind. Dyed sawdust that forms images on the ground symbolize earth. Altars might include water, to help the souls of loved ones not get parched as they make their journey back to the land of the living. Salt is also sometimes included.

 

"We don’t want any bad spirits to come through, so we use salt to keep them away," said Imelda.

 

Altars also include objects and food that were particular favorites of those who have died. For Ruth, that was bread and cheese.

 

"My mom said she was a mouse because she liked cheese so much," said Maria.

The process of starting this year's altar without Ruth was a painful one.

"When we started planning it, I just felt so sad. I could not believe that she was part of it now," said Maria.

 

An altar at Carbondale's Dia de los Muertos celebration
Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

Imelda felt determined to honor her sister. It's what Ruth would have wanted, she says.

 

"I can’t even imagine not doing it this year because she would hate that we stopped her tradition or her teaching," she said.

 

Both sisters say they know that, as tradition holds, Ruth will be with them on Dia de los Muertos. Will she be proud of her sisters and the altar they built in her honor? 

"If it's good, yes!" laughed Imelda. "Yes, I think she will."