“I want it to be vibrant. I want it to be bright. I want us to remember them fondly.”
Ana Sanchez, lifelong resident of Saginaw, created an ofrenda for the Castle Museum’s temporary exhibit, A Celebration of Souls. The main exhibit comes to us from the Field Museum in Chicago, and it shows the rich cultural traditions of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico. The gorgeous photographs and descriptive text could stand on their own, however, we wanted to use this opportunity to highlight the longstanding Hispanic community in Saginaw. Ana Sanchez volunteered to share her family’s story.
Ofrendas are more commonly known in the U.S. thanks to movies like Coco, and they are understood to be an alter to ancestors. The word ofrenda literally means offering. Ana shared that every ofrenda is different – even each family’s ofrenda changes year to year – and some people do not think of it in the old traditional belief that the ofrenda will guide the spirits of loved ones, but all ofrendas are about remembering and honoring deceased family members.
In a conversation that flowed in and out of topics and memories, the way all great conversations do, Ana explained, “So what you do is you put up the person who is deceased, and then you put things on the alter that they like doing, that they were good at, that they were known for, and then the food, which obviously we can’t put on here, for example, … her grandpa, it wouldn’t matter how hot it was if he was working outside or planting the garden, he would say, ‘Ah, go get me a cup of coffee.’….” She continued explaining that foods people loved are a big part of most ofrendas, but since this example is for a museum, we couldn’t have real foods sitting out. If it were a regular space for the ofrenda, “We would have had tortillas because everybody makes tortillas… “
In addition to photographs of the family member and favorite foods, ofrendas have other small objects to represent her loved ones’ interests and accomplishments. Ana added American flags because the Sanchez side of the family has three deceased veterans. Her dad loved to hunt, so there is a little deer. Her mom’s side of the family (the Ruiz side) had a parrot, so Ana added a parrot.
Ana’s grandparents were from Mexico. Her father was born in Saginaw, and her mother was born in San Antonio. Ana did not grow up making ofrendas, and they are not allowed to do so in Saginaw cemeteries for Dia de los Muertos. She first made one with her cousin Gloria for annual brunch at la Unión Cívica.
It was Gloria’s idea to enter the ofrenda-making competition. The first year, they learned a lot about what makes an eye-catching ofrenda. The second year they built theirs taller and added more colorful touches. The example Ana made for the Castle Museum is similar to the last one she and Gloria made before COVID. “All sides of the family loved music. My cousin, Gloria, who I’m personally dedicating this to… she played the piano at church… she passed away of COVID in 2020.“ Ana expressed her grief, but also shared, “I don’t think I would have been confident enough to do this if my cousin Gloria hadn’t first invited me to do a competition at la Unión Cívica that first year. It was fun. We really enjoyed doing it.”
And that’s what her Ruiz y Sanchez ofrenda remains focused on: this is a celebration of life.
A Celebration of Souls, along with our local component including Ana’s ofrenda and another dedicated to the Rodarte family, is currently on display at the Castle Museum. The exhibit will remain until mid-August.