CORRECTION: Local museum, Mexican consulate team up on Day of the Dead celebration

Oct. 29—Correction appended.

Families and artists trickled in and out of El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe on Friday with arms full of food, flowers, trinkets and photos in preparation for the one night a year when the souls of the dead return to the land of the living.

Each person had their own little space to honor their lost loved ones and leave offerings — or ofrendas — of things they liked when they were alive.

Cobalt blue glass bottles sat in front of an elaborate altar dedicated to the museum's former board chairman, Armando Tomás Romero, who died in March, not long after being diagnosed with cancer.

"He loved blue glass," recalled the museum's executive director, María Martínez. "He passed just a few months ago, and we're still reeling from it."

The shrine dedicated to him is one of many that will be displayed at the museum as part of its Day of the Dead — or Día de los Muertos — celebration.

The displays at the museum are part of a larger celebration organized by the Consulate of Mexico in Albuquerque. The consulate teamed up with 24 organizations to create an altar route titled Regreso del Mictlán — or the Return of the Underworld. Together they are bringing altar displays to New Mexico, from Farmington to Albuquerque, and to Canyon, Texas.

Each organization created altars dedicated to someone who has passed on to the underworld, ranging from lost loved ones to dead celebrities. Some locations will have events and cultural activities, such as ballet folclórico performances and ceremonial processions.

El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe will hold its own event Sunday where people can view the altars, listen to music, try some traditional food made for Day of the Dead and view a blessing from an Indigenous Mixteco group. The museum also will feature an exhibit of work from local artist Sam Leyva and his family.

Leyva painted murals with his brothers and sisters in the '70s and '80s. Now that his siblings have all passed away, Leyva hopes to honor their legacy with the exhibit and share the work they did throughout their lives.

"The paintings need to be shown," Leyva said. "So I'm trying to sell as much as I can and let somebody else enjoy them because I've had [them] for a long time."

At the Day of the Dead exhibit, Romero's altar was decorated with CDs of music he liked and pictures of the man, who at just 13 years old left home to become a priest.

"His parents took him to the train station with mother's old suitcase, one of the big old things in those years, and they said goodbye," Martinez said. "He was going to go save the souls of the people of the world. He said, 'I was supposed to go be the Pope.' "

Romero's rambunctious spirit prevented him from taking a vow of obedience, so he eventually left to become a musician.

" 'I went from Gregorian to rock 'n' roll in 30 days,' " she said, remembering his words.

Romero went on to become a lover of the arts. He married and dedicated his time to the museum for over 30 years.

"One day he said to me, 'You know what, I'm just a priest who happens to be married,' " Martinez recalled. "Because for him, being a priest was to give, to care and to do it with the most genuine feeling in his heart, and he did that all his life."

Other altars on display at the museum honor community members who have died, like soul singer Donny Gerrard, who sang backup for Elton John, Bette Midler and B.B. King, and Genoveva Chavez, the singer known as the "First Lady of the Santa Fe Fiestas."

Others displays, like the ones made by Fran and Ramon Barela, were made to honor the ancestral traditions associated with the Mexican holiday.

One of Fran's altars displays multiple muertitas, or skeleton women, who are depicted doing various activities and represent the things people did throughout their lives. The other is a small glowing tree, covered in monarch butterflies, titled Arbol de Almas — Tree of Souls.

"The monarchs represent the souls of our ancestors returning to visit on Dia de los Muertos," Fran said.

Next to the tree are small pieces of paper people can use to write messages to departed loved ones, to be hung on the tree's branches.

Fran said she had always celebrated Day of the Dead with her grandmother when she was growing up. Over the last few years, she has displayed her altar dedicated to her family at the museum, but this year she wanted to do something different.

Her husband, Ramon, created a display decorated with corn husks, meant to honor the Mayan Lords.

"Dia de los Muertos, you know, is very much of a Mexican tradition; it also goes further back into the Mayas and how they viewed life and death," he explained.

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly reported that El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe was responsible for setting up the Dia de Muertos altars. While the museum provided the space, the artists and individuals taking part in the event set up the altars.