Remembering deceased loved ones is a significant part of Mexican culture and the annual holiday Dia de los Muertos, in which surviving family members and friends honor the departed person’s memory with elaborate, colorful altars that include photos, food, flowers and important artifacts from their lives.
Chrissie Dickerson Ramirez said constructing an altar, or ofrenda, is not usually recommended within the first year after a loved one’s death, because the loss can still be too fresh and too painful.
But in her case, even though it’s been less than five months since she lost her husband, Macario Ramirez, to heart failure on June 10, she had no choice but to put together “Un Gran Altar” in his honor. Helping the Heights community celebrate Dia de los Muertos is a longstanding tradition at Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery, which the couple founded in 1984 and moved to West 19th Street in the 1990s.
“Even though it’s a challenge, it’s also been such a special time for us. It’s something I had to do,” Chrissie said. “You know, in terms of doing it, I feel like he’s still with me. I think that has lessened just the grief that comes.”
Chrissie, who still runs the shop and gallery at 241 W. 19th St., unveiled her husband’s altar last Saturday during an open house that drew about 100 members of the community. Un Gran Altar and four other altars, including a community altar created by Judy Turner in which visitors can leave photos or other items in memory of their departed loved ones, will remain on display through Nov. 15.
Until that time, Casa Ramirez will be open from noon-5 p.m. on Sundays, from 1-5 p.m. on Mondays and from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on every other day of the week. The altars were created in conjunction with Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which starts Saturday, Oct. 31 and ends Monday, Nov. 2.
Chrissie said the holiday, which is rooted in indigenous religious teachings and includes symbolism from the Catholic Church, can be celebrated by anyone regardless of their beliefs or cultural backgrounds. She also said it is not the Mexican version of Halloween, which is associated with scary imagery whereas Dia de los Muertos features skeletons that appear to be happy and peaceful.
Altars also include the four elements of earth (food and flowers), wind (paper cut-outs or banners), water (something to drink) and fire (candles).
“It’s believed that the souls of the dead come back for a brief time to visit,” Chrissie said. “The families or loved ones want to welcome them with favorite foods and favorite times. It’s a good omen for the upcoming year when the spirits of those departed see a warm welcome for them.”
The altar Chrissie created for Macario, with the help of family and friends, includes photos of him from different stages of his life as well as gemstones and pieces of amber the couple acquired during a visit to Oaxaca, Mexico. It also features traditional yellow marigold flowers and the image of a bright orange sun, symbolizing the cycle of life, as well as items from Marcario’s life as a teacher of Mexican culture and tradition and as a champion of civil and labor rights.
Chrissie said the experience has been emotional but also therapeutic, and it’s helped her and the community reconnect with her beloved husband.
“He’s here,” she said. “That’s what people say when they walk in. They still feel him here.”