Last year, alumna Stephanie Sandoval and her best friend Antonio shared Four Lokos before nights out. After his death, she scoured campus for as many flavors of his favorite drink she could find to place on his altar.
“I had to jump all over campus to find the Four Lokos [for the altar], so I went to the same places and gas stations we used to go to, and to be honest, I don’t think I would’ve ever gone back if it weren’t for the altar,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval’s altar for her best friend is a part of the Mexic-Arte Museum’s exhibition “Community Altars: A Celebration of Life” on display through the first half of November as a part of the museum’s mission to support Latino culture. Just two months after her friend died, Sandoval began creating the altar for Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that celebrates loved ones who have died.
During Dia de los Muertos, the exhibit takes up most of the museum’s space with a collection of eclectic altars designed by different artists. There’s an homage to deceased pets that features their favorite toys and food placed in an angelic setting, a colorful altar filled with memorabilia of beloved TV star Chespirito and a large, glittering altar for charismatic singer Juan Gabriel, where visitors can write a message on a scrap of shiny paper to toss into the altar.
Since the altars themselves are a joyous celebration of life, Sandoval put Antonio’s favorite hat, favorite food and a number of photos. But Sandoval said making an altar can also be bittersweet.
“There were moments when I just had to stop, because it was a little bit draining — being constantly reminded of him, because I was still grieving,” Sandoval said. “It was really personal. I had to go back and look for pictures and talk to his family in Australia for suggestions.”
Día de los Muertos altars are a traditional form of art, but Sandoval said she thinks we all make our own “altars” to celebrate things we love in our daily life.
“We make altars without even thinking about it,” Sandoval said. “Your desk at home maybe — you put up pictures, memorabilia, things people have given you. It reminds me of a makeshift altar.”
Artists like Sandoval make an effort to not dilute the aspects of foreign cultures they’re representing, especially since Latino traditions have a prominent standing in Texas.
“Having help from everyone in the museum who was very knowledgeable about Día de los Muertos really helped,” Sandoval said. “When you have a collaborative effort and are really informed on what you’re doing, I don’t think [representing other cultures] loses its authenticity.”
Neuroscience senior Fatima Frausto thinks Dia de los Muertos altars are an important part of Mexican culture, as they help bring out the positive aspects of a person’s life from the usually somber topic of revisiting death.
“The altars are one the best things about Día de Muertos,” Frausto said. “They make you see the person in a happy light, instead of being sad that they died.”
Making art is an emotional release for many artists, and in her ofrenda Sandoval found not only her best friend’s life, but her own peace of mind.
“[Making this altar] helped me cope in a way,” she said. “I think it was therapeutic.”
“Community Altars: A Celebration of Life”
When: Until Nov. 13
Where: Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress Ave.
Admission: $5/$4 for students