Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Landscape, Language, Teaching, Wildness, Beauty, Imagination

Dia de los Muertos—Altar as Landscape, Love Lives On


Día de los Muertos, All Soul’s Day, November 1st. In Latino tradition, Día de los Muertos honors our loved ones who have passed with altars laden with flowers, photos, and candles. I first learned of this tradition when I fell in love with Frida Kahlo in my early 20’s. Día de los Muertos is an integral element in our family’s life rhythms. Composing the altar this year felt especially sacred amidst the pandemic and so many people lost. So many new souls honored on the altar by Latinos in the US and throughout Mexico.

Mom’s hope chest creates the foundation for the altar. As I placed each piece, I had to smile. When my Grandma Mary embroidered Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, when my Great-Grandma Grace ground the coffee before dawn in the sod hut on the ranch, never could they have imaged these pieces where they are now. The landscape of our altar reflects the landscape of my life. Yo soy fronterista. I am a woman of the borderlands, as used by Gloría Anzaldúa. My life is one of a fronterista, where worlds overlap: prairie and Southwest, rural and international, landscape literature and linguistic human rights. Here on the altar, prairie and farmland come together with the Southwest; German, Welsh, Irish, and English with Latino; Protestant with Catholic; past with present. The worlds, each with a distinct culture, come together to create the mosaic of the whole.

As I place the flowers for my German Lutheran grandparents, Grandpa Wink and Grandma Anna, I hear my Grandpa Wink saying the Lord’s Prayer in German to delight my cousins and I as children. So many historic heritage languages and cultures fill the altar. Never did the great-grandparents and grandparents that I honor imagine a Día de los Muertos altar. The unimaginable—as I placed each piece, I thought of how very much like this expresses where we find ourselves in life right now around the world.

Grandma Janet’s wine glass, St. Agatha, Virgen de Guadalupe

Grammie Lucille

The altar holds a treasured wine glass of my mom’s mother, Grandma Janet, as Janet’s mother, my Great-Grammie Lucille looks on as a teenager from a black-and-white photo above. The glass rests between St. Agatha, Patron Saint of Breast Cancer, Nurses, and Women’s Issues, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Virgen de Guadalupe (Artist, Jil Gurulé). The beauty and delicacy of the glass reflects Grandma Janet’s life. St. Agatha is new to the altar this year. Breast cancer has touched many women’s lives in my family. My Grandma Janet passed far too young. Her wine glass honors her life, as well as represents my decision to remove wine glasses from my own table on November 1 last year, so I could focus fully on healing.

Corn honors my Uncle Ray, a farmer who lived life with such kindness, generosity, love, and a twinkle in his eye.

In our college community, we unexpectedly lost a well-loved colleague and dear friend. Luke defined himself as a spiritual being, imbued with the traditions of Peru where he lived and climbed for so many years. Eagles represent Spirit. Fly, Luke, fly.

For all of those lost to coronavirus, a collection of leaves I found under the heart-draped tree along my running path, tucked into the bird’s nest.

In honor of those passed to coronavirus.

Forever love.

Pan de Muerto

“Mom, did you make pan de muerto this year?” Wyatt asked me hesitantly on the phone in mid-November last year. It was the first year I had not made Frida Kahlo’s recipe (we use honey from the ranch) for pan de muerto in the kids’ memory. This annual ritual grounds our family.  With the health journey of last fall, I did not make the traditional sweet bread. When I realized last year that it was November 1st and I hadn’t made the bread, in an attempt to lift my spirits, Noé said, “Don’t worry. It’s okay. They won’t miss it.” I felt somewhat better in that moment. I also worried that they would not miss it. The sticky dough of pan de muerto helps to hold us together as a family.

Manuela and Amadeo Villarreal

When Wyatt asked if I had made, I was overcome with both maternal guilt at not making and a sense of deep gratitude and joy that he had missed! We altered our traditions last year and made when all came home for Thanksgiving. The spirits were just fine with that. This mommy’s heart smiled to watch all gathered yet again around the counter, creating their small figures of dough, sprinkling with colored sugars and decorations, and then the smiles on their faces when they each took that first bite of the bread fresh from the oven.

Noé’s parents, Amadeo and Manuela Villarreal, always center our altar. I was not fortunate enough to meet them. We missed each other by a few years. Their spirits remain alive through the countless stories of laughter, hard work, family love and dedication, and irrepressible and irreverent senses of humor! How I wish I had been blessed to sit around the kitchen table, drinking coffee from the pot that was always full, to hear of their lives and their stories. Whenever Manuela is described, the sentence usually ends with, “She was quite the character! No la tenía miedo de nada.(She wasn’t scared of anything).” When Amadeo passed, he pointed to the corner of the room and told his kids gathered around, “Allí está tu mamá. Viene por mí.” (“There is your mom. She’s come for me.”)

Treasures through the generation grace the altar. Mom gave Grandma Mary’s blue glass flower vase to her friend, Mary Ann, who then gave it to me many years later.

I received a photo that so reflects el Día de los Muertos for Latino children in the US this year. Noah’s mom, Patricia, sent me this photo and wrote, “Living always in two cultures—Harry Potter and Día de los Muertos. Here Noah connects for his morning meeting in elementary school online.”

A few of books of the indomitable Frida Kahlo, La Gran Friducha, for whom Día de los Muertos represented so much.

A page from Frida’s journal:

I had very mixed feelings when I first heard about the movie “Coco.” Disney producing a movie about Day of the Dead, thoughts of cultural appropriation ran rampant through my mind. There are no princesses in the Day of the Dead. I was anxious when we sat to watch, in much the same way I’m anxious when I start a movie of a book I have loved, worried that the movie will mar the beauty and power of the original. I was delighted to discover a beautiful honoring of this sacred tradition. “This makes me think of my parents,” Noé said when the movie ended, a tear rolling down his cheek.

Trees of Life are often found on Día de los Muertos altars. We received desperately needed moisture through snow earlier this week, as seen here through a Tree of Life.

Snow through Tree of Life in my writing room.

Some of you may recognize this piece from a couple of years ago. This is now published in “For the Brokenhearted” (https://nappingdogpress.org/2022/09/01/new-release-for-the-brokenhearted/).

Our altar this year awaits. There are new people to honor this year. As soon as I send this, I shall prepared for dear ones on their way to honor their own loved ones who have passed.

The candles are lit.

Love lives on.




Author: Dawn Wink

Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores language, landscape, wildness, beauty, and imagination.

12 thoughts on “Dia de los Muertos—Altar as Landscape, Love Lives On

  1. You beautiful depiction of the celebration of the Day of the Dead has remained with me since first reading. I save this moving tribute to remind myself of an experience I hope to share in coming years. Tenderness is a rare commodity in today’s world; I wish everyone could feel the spiritual souls who dwell among us.

  2. Your altar is beautiful and your description of the significance and meaning of each piece touched me deeply. I first became acquainted and experienced Dia de los Muertos in November of 1973 in San Miguel de Allende where I was living. I have never forgotten many images I saw for the first time or the grace and reverence I witnessed, especially among ancianos honoring those loved ones who had passed on. Your writing always leaves me wanting more. Your expressions are truly a gift Dawn.

  3. Winkie…this dewdrops is just beautiful and so full of love…and, of course, I spotted your Grandma Mary’s beautiful blue vase. She would be (perhaps she “is”) so pleased to know her memory, stories and vase are loved & honored in your home. xoxo, Mary Ann


  4. I work at a school that offers a Heritage Model (FKA Dual-Language) class for each grade level. The 4th/5th grade Heritage Model class put this up in the cafeteria. Lots of interesting things left on the ofrenda including a picture of Selena, Vicente Fernandez (yes, the Mariachi), doggie treats, and several cups of coffee! Some kids cried when they had to take it down this afternoon.

  5. Thanks for sharing your beautiful reflections and memories, dear Dawn! Love to you! Love does live on.

    Meredith Machen Meredith.Machen@gmail.com 505 577 6337


  6. Dawn,
    I enjoyed your reflections on this All Saints’ Day (as my tradition calls it). For me, the day that has this same essence most profoundly expressed is on Maundy Thursday, as I experienced that tradition for the first time only weeks before my mom died of cancer. Stripping of the altar–as opposed to decorating it–became the visceral response to my loss. Now, All Saints’ Day is full of the many who came before me and who formed me is joyous day. I’m glad you shared your experience.
    By the way, I would have to agree with your observations about “Coco”–a beautifully made animation. The colors and images are transporting and the music is fun. I lived a year in Mitla, Mexico–The Day of the Dead was impressive.

  7. The.Best! Xxoo

    Sent from my iPhone


  8. Thank you for sharing your families Day of the Dead. You are a wonderful writer. When I read your words I am there with you. Blessings
    Lucy. Diane Kindt’s friend. Aren’t I lucky?

  9. So beautifully woven to honor so many lovely parts of you, my friend.

  10. I can’t thank you enough for this amazing piece, dear Dawn. We share of love of Frida Kahlo, as you know. But to have a look at the altar you have developed is especially meaningful to me, as I, of course, think of my own parents, now gone, and my darling soulmate. Vince and I married on Halloween in 1996. But beyond all of that, I must say I loved that you presented us with the chance to see Noe’s parents. Now I see where his good looks come from!
    Love to you and all of your family. XOXOXOXO

  11. What a moving and beautiful tribute. My husband, who died 13 years ago from a series of medical errors, was born on November 1st. I still celebrate his birthday and perhaps should incorporate your ritual into his celebration next year.

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