The altars of Dia de muertos NDG 2019

The essence of Día de Muertos is hardly limited to Mexican culture. It has always been a blend of different cultures like the Zapotec, Aztec, and Tarascan indigenous traditions with the Hispanic religious festivities. Today it is no different, Día de Muertos is an ever-evolving tradition that welcomes new interpretations.

In this edition of Día de Muertos NDG the altars reflect this rich diversity. While some altars in this exhibition showcase the intimate and personal characteristics of the domestic traditional altars, others offer us interpretations that maximize their potential to tell stories.

As some creators show, the altar can be used as a means to re-signify traditional symbols and to place them in a different context. Others prove that altars have the potential to be a space for political activism, as they help us establish connections between the past and the present, they function as artifacts for our collective memory.

Maria Castaneda, curator


Karla Trejo and Mayela Sandoval

We dedicate this offering to the women and girls who are victims of femicide.

Femicide is a hate crime based on gender. This means that women are murdered for the sole reason of being women alone. The majority of femicides are perpetrated by men.

Mexico is the country with the highest rate of femicides on the continent with 3,357 femicides in 2018, 9 women murdered per day, compared to 1 woman murdered every 48 hours in Canada. Although the gap is huge, in both countries there is a disproportionate number of indigenous women who have been victims of gender violence, as the justice system has marginalized these groups. In Mexico 95% of feminicides go unpunished, which reflects the systemic discrimination and gender violence entrenched in society.

Beyond these figures, we seek to show our solidarity with the fight against this injustice. The dehumanization of femicide victims prevails in society, and we wish to put an end to this. That is why we want to name and put a face on those women who were murdered without consequences. They had a life, a family, dreams, ambitions, and NONE of these women deserved to die.

#NiUnaMenos #PasUneFemmedeMoins


Altar by Vanesa Arcega

Objects with symbolic power compose the traditional altar. While cempasuchil (marigolds) flowers and candles mark the path for the souls and to purify their journey, other types of figures like calaveras (skulls) remind us of the closeness of life and death. Ultimately, the holiday is about joy. For this reason, it is important to “spoil” the departed with the things that they used to enjoy in life.


In this altar the hobbies of those who are no longer with us are celebrated, like coin collecting and painting. This is also an act of care. Their favourite drinks and food offer nourishment and welcomes them into our homes.


This altar celebrates the memory of Eduardo de Arcega and Eva.


Yaen Tijerina, visual artist


This altar honours my grandmother Minerva as it is a celebration of the memory of our ancestors; it is a device to remember them and teach my daughter what I’ve learned about her Abuela Grande. Within the Zapotec tradition, receiving the loved ones that return every November is a great event: from going to the cemetery days before to clean the graves to the elaboration of a great offering at home to receive them. It is a great party and a feast. For my grandmother, it was very important to set up her altar in memory of her great grandmother, her in-laws, and her close family, and it is precisely through these rituals that I can bond to her.


Given that the great Xahuela passed away this year, nostalgia led me to participate in the Dia de Muertos festivities in this far away land. The objects in the offering represent what I remember most about my grandma, like her simplicity, frankness, and the gallantry of her Istmeña woman soul. Other elements are traditional to the altars from the region of the Istmo in Oaxaca, like the vertical shape, plantain leaves, and the festive xicalpestle. The altar is mobile, portable, and symbolic in its simplicity (fabricated with cardboard in its majority). The beings that are part of my memory tree– with or without photograph but present in the corn leaves ties, are dwellers of this intimate altar that unfolds within the skirts of an istemeña ancestor.


While building this altar, I found myself populating an illustrative postcard to that yearning for our grandparents. Like a distant memory of a beloved childhood tale, from which I managed to convey only a reflection. But here it goes, with a lot of love, this altar is dedicated to my Xahuela, the great Na' Minerva (1921-2019).


Performance artist, choreographer and interpreter

This altar honours water. Water is life– it purifies, cleanses, and purges. Artist Leticia Vera uses the altar as a mnemonic device to conjure her early childhood memories, where her mother used to place glasses of water as an offering to the souls that dwelled her home. Water is a central symbolic component of Día de Muertos altars because it satiates the thirst for traveling souls. Here, the artist showcases water as an entity/fluid with its own spirit, which is offered on a metaphorical sense to satiate the thirst for justice in the country.


In this contemporary re-interpretation of the Día de Muertos tradition the altar is white. This inspiration comes from white altars traditional to the region of Huaquechula, Puebla. This may contrast with other altars in the exhibition where colours predominate but the Día de Muertos tradition is vast, and it is expressed in different forms in each region of Mexico.


Altar by Carla Canales, Erika Herrera and Patricia Torres

Offerings in Mexican homes for the Día de Muertos are traditionally dedicated to members of the family and loved ones who have passed away. Pictures of the people we want to remember, stand alongside some of their personal items and the things they enjoyed in life.

This altar honours the memory of family members, but it is also a means to share their stories with the next generations. Setting up the altar allows us to share with our children who our parents and grandparents were. Living away from Mexico, the altar has become a vehicle to connect with our traditions and to cope with nostalgia for our culture.

This altar is also a product of the encounter between the Peruvian and Mexican cultures.


This altar honours the memory of: Victoria Borjón,

Cosme García, Altagracia Plata, Gregorio Herrera, Camilo Hernández, Paz Díaz, Guadalupe Gedovius, Rodolfo Pérez de Tejada, Rodolfo Pérez de Tejada Gedovius, Patricia Terán, Alfonso Torres

LESVY BERLÍN (1995-2017)

Association des étudiants mexicains de McGill

In honour of Lesvy Berlín (1995-2017) and all disappeared women in Mexico, this altar foregrounds the systemic gender violence in the country. Lesvy was assassinated in 2017 in hands of her boyfriend. Her death unleashed a series of public protests in Mexico. To this date, Lesvy’s murderer has been convicted for femicide, but this is not the reality for most cases of gender violence.

During the first quarter of the year, at least 1,119 femicides were perpetrated, and the majority of the families are still demanding justice. On August 16, 2019, one of the largest feminist protests took place in Mexico City.

Thousands of women flooded the streets of the capital seeking answers from authorities. This altar is in support of those protests and commemorates the life of all the women who don’t have a voice anymore.

This altar celebrates and honours the tradition in Oaxaca

Linda Rutenberg, photographe


The Dia de Muertos holiday is a collective practice of special spiritual and social significance. The festivities start early usually by buying flowers from the local markets, and cleaning graves at the cemetery. Families prepare traditional dishes to share, like “mole” and tortillas. Photographer Linda Rutenberg offers us a window to those familial moments. Through her lens, she has gathered the places and the people that participate in this celebration in the region of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Altar by Alejandra Valle and Marisa Salinas


The Día de Muertos celebration is not limited to commemorate family members, but sometimes altars are dedicated to public figures. This is a way to honour their legacy and celebrate their life.


This altar is dedicated with love to Alicia del Valle, Alejandra’s grandmother, who passed away asleep to keep sharing love with her loved ones. The altar also memorializes great composer and bass player of the band Botellita de Jerez: Armando Vega, who was a great Mexican musician, poet, and screenwriter. In the same spirit, this offering pays tribute to great Mexican singer and artist: José José. As an act of gratitude, Alejandra and Marisa pay tribute to these public figures side by side with other family members.


Altar by Maru Lara Keane and Xania

This branch holds ribbons that commemorate a loved one.


While it could be said that the Día de Muertos tradition is celebrated differently in many regions of Mexico, some families adapt the tradition and transform it to make it their own. This is the case of Maru. After making Canada her home, she wanted to find a way to include non-Mexicans to participate in her altar at home. She found that the relationship with death is a very personal one, as well as cultural-specific. This is how she came up with the idea of having a branch where guests could tie a ribbon in honor of a loved one that had passed. For Maru, the Día de Muertos celebration is about sharing and inclusion.


Fraternité Culturelle des Amériques

This is a traditional altar from the region of Oaxaca.




PAAL Partageons le monde

In the fall, Montreal markets transform into a visual feast. Farmers honor the harvest abundance of the season with “altars,” swarming pumpkins and corn over haystacks. Similarly to the Día de Muertos, October in Quebec is a month to thank nature and to start a new cycle.

Traditions are better understood when shared. At PAAL, we believe that we can create a space for empathy when we exchange and engage in a dialogue between different cultures.


We invite you to participate in the Dia de Muertos tradition by bringing an item or photograph that you would like to offer to remember or honor someone’s memory.

Nouveautés / News

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© 2015 Rafael Benitez. All rights reserved