Early in the month of October, the Los Angeles home of BA in Liberal Studies and MFA in Creative Writing alum Consuelo G. Flores becomes an explosion of boxes and bins, ornate paper flowers, and bolts of colorful fabric. This is when her busy time begins. The artist, writer, and advocate will spend the following weeks preparing to build altars for Day of the Dead celebrations—a practice she began as a teenager.
“I have been teaching and participating in Day of the Dead events for more than two lifetimes,” she says. “It seems like it’s been part of my DNA for many years.” These decades have shaped an artistic and cultural practice that connects people not only to those who have died but to their own living. Although iconography from the celebration has been commodified into dress-up costumes and tchotchkes, Flores is working to maintain its roots and attend to its growth as an avenue for cultural connections and awareness of injustices.
A Tradition To Be Proud Of
Day of the Dead—in Spanish, Día de Los Muertos—is a Mexico-originating holiday traditionally celebrated through the creation of ancestor altars known as ofrendas. The people creating an ofrenda will often cover a table in a beautiful cloth and put out photographs of their deceased loved ones. It is traditional to decorate an ofrenda with marigolds and to put out the favorite food and drinks of the loved ones being celebrated. There are many other traditions, and of course, they vary from family to family and from person to person.
But in 1981, when Flores helped build her first altar at Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles, there was almost no knowledge of the holiday in the U.S. At that time, Day of the Dead wasn’t the well-known festival it is now. In fact, this arts and cultural center was one of only two places that practiced the tradition in the U.S. But even though Flores wanted to participate, at first her family didn’t support her interest. In this reluctance to be proud of this part of their family’s culture, Flores felt the long history of colonialism reverberate. Centuries-long campaigns of vilification of Indigenous practices and replacing them with Catholicism had left people thinking the celebration was a form of devil worship.
For Flores, this view of the holiday couldn’t be further from the truth. She experienced her own griefs in life, and she saw the ways the altars connected people to family, community, and memory. Participating in the celebration felt sacred, not evil.
She knew something more was at stake. As a site of both personal and collective healing, she sees the altars as a way to process the universal human experience of mortality. “It’s a beautiful offering,” she says. “It’s a beautiful piece of work that is very temporary. It’s like life, it goes up and it has its period, has its peak, and then it comes down. And then disappears.”
But for Flores, the altars also transmute the very specific griefs of people who are positioned as disposable by violent systems. A mantra that has developed in the artist’s life is, “But for the Grace of God, there go I.” When she hears about the deaths of people who are Black and brown on the news, when people in her own community are killed, building altars offers a way to hold these stories, while making sure they aren’t turned into numbers or tragic figures. “I do have to, at times, put some emotional distance, because it will consume me,” she says. “But I let it consume me enough to make something happen.” What has happened is a lifetime of remembering the joys of people’s lives amidst pain, inviting their souls to spend time with us, and hoping for a different future.
Physical and Emotional Components of Altar Building
“Day the Dead as we now know it, even in Mexico, is a hybridization of a hybridization of a hybridization,” Flores explains. The awareness of the shifting nature of altars is foundational to her installations. Ways of building ofrendas have been passed down over generations, from the shape of the altar to the flowers included, but years of practice have shown Flores when changing some of these traditions better reflects those being honored.
Built from the top down in a pyramid shape, traditionally marigolds are layered on the floor. The petals leave a trail for the dead to follow. The second level is where personal items live and offerings of bread, other food, and water to nourish the souls in their traveling. At the top is where the person’s photo is placed.
When her brother died, Flores’s relationship with altar-building changed drastically. She was now so connected to the person she was honoring that she knew how to reflect him with deep authenticity and love. “The altar didn’t have marigolds. It had an orchid, a white orchid, in the middle, with red and white rose petals strewn about,” she explains. “And the reason was because he was my orchid. He was beautiful, and yet fragile.”
The process of building an altar for her brother opened up new emotional connections to the process of building and shaped different forms of altars in her later work, including an installation called “Roots of Our Resistance,” which honored the Black and brown people who died at higher rates than white people from COVID-19. This altar was upside-down, with their photos as the roots of a larger collective.
Flores explains that all altars, no matter their shape, require three emotional tenets as well. The first is remembering those who have died that have shaped you. As she says, “You honor and respect and appreciate the gifts that people gave you while they were alive and influenced your life.” Her examples include her mother, who taught her to value family and education. She honors her brother, who taught her about social justice. And she honors her father, who taught her to read and write in Spanish. “They’re my trinity,” she says.
The second tenet is that you become aware of and contemplate your own mortality. It is a time to remind yourself that our experiences on the earth are finite. “So, because of the first and second tenets, the third happens,” Flores says. “That is: you celebrate life on a daily basis.”
Although Day of the Dead altars carry specific cultural meanings that shouldn’t be appropriated, Flores sees cross-cultural offerings that hold these same tenets. It is possible for people not connected to this cultural practice to build altars and connect to ancestors and loved ones by researching grief practices from one’s own cultures.
There are also times that offerings become communal and cross-cultural. The AIDS quilt of the 1980s, a project that publicly grieved the deaths of those stigmatized by the virus and their sexuality is one example. “That is a definite form of an altar because it is an offering,” Flores says. “Every stitch was thought about in the reason for this quilt. The reason for anyone making a section of that quilt was because they wanted to honor someone who they lost.” These offerings, that bring attention to larger societal issues, have become central in Flores’ work.
Creating Space for Communal Grief
This is the first year Flores is the lead designer of the community altar in Grand Park in Los Angeles. She is building an altar in the shape of a woman’s body to hold the children killed in the Uvalde school shooting, honoring their mothers and the two teachers that died. Every year an event like this calls Flores to bring attention to it. She doesn’t choose what is most prevalent in any given news cycle but rather is drawn to losses that continue to have an impact but feel forgotten.
“It’s an emotional, visceral, contemplative reaction first, and I reflect on it,” Flores says. While the media moves on from these stories, she works to lift them up, knowing the pain of those who have lost their loved ones hasn’t stopped. This is one way she fights against the desensitization to tragedy in contemporary culture. It’s also a way she carries the grief she herself feels. “One of the things that I have felt, over and over again, is that social injustice and inequity in the Black and Brown community continues to happen. It just comes in a different form,” she says. Building altars is a way for her to process that generational grief and anger.
One topic that she has highlighted through multiple altars in recent years is the tragedy of women who have been murdered at the border between Mexico and the U.S. This femicide, concentrated around Ciudad Juarez and neighboring areas, was brought to the attention of the global community by the mothers of those killed. At an Amnesty International meeting in the early 2000s, Flores watched as people shut down in the immensity of the tragedy. She realized she needed to connect people to a singular story to represent the overwhelming number of people affected, so she focused on sharing the story of a single person. “I told them, I want your feeling about this one beautiful girl by the name of Esmerelda to multiply in your head,” Flores says, “and apply it to every single Esmerelda that was murdered because all of them face the same kind of death.”
It was the details of people’s lives that created lasting impressions. “Every time I make an altar, every piece I write, I connect the audience who is viewing it with the people who are there,” Flores says. “The more personal you are, the more universal it becomes. So I include things like, ‘What was her first word?’” To make an offering to people she doesn’t know Flores researches their lives and how they were loved. Her work is to honor and celebrate the individuals who have been killed, not solely to focus on these inequities but to remember their joys as well.
Flores has created altars for many groups of people who have died from violence, using the vibrancy of their lives both to honor them and to keep the injustices of their deaths at the forefront of public consciousness. From the mass kidnapping of Ayotzinapa 43 to the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting, Flores keeps these people’s lives from being forgotten.
Someday, though, she hopes her work can have a different light, focused on individual people who have died peacefully. “I do wish that next year, I don’t have to build an altar for people who have been killed in mass shootings,” she says.
For now, her art is a reminder to appreciate every day she has with her friends, family, and community. Every interaction is a seed for Flores to nurture and create change with. Every altar is an opportunity to turn grief into action and to celebrate life.