CHICAGO (CBS) — Thousands in Chicago will commemorate the Day of the Dead to honor loved ones who’ve departed this world.
The National Mexican Museum of Art in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood showcases different interpretations of the event with its annual exhibit on display through December 9.
“It’s more about life than it is about death,” said Cesareo Moreno, chief curator at the NMMA. “The viewers get to come to the museum and see how Mexican communities throughout North America visit the cemeteries, reminisce and talk about those individuals who are no longer with us, who are a very important part of our families and our communities.”
Every year, the museum showcases different “ofrendas”or offerings, also known as altars, created by local, national and international artists. This year, more than 50 artists participated in the creation of the items.
“The Day of the Dead is actually a celebration of life, of family and it’s a beautiful tradition that really helps us to embrace the inevitable,” said Moreno. “And it really keeps the memory of our ancestors as part of our conversations.”
The tradition goes back centuries, rooted in the ancient Pre-Cuachtémoc cultures that believed in life after death.
After the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, the event was observed on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day in Mexico. Today, many Mexican communities in the United States participate by gathering in cultural spaces to remember loved ones.
Ofrendas usually display similar elements: flowers, candles, photographs, sometimes clothing and mementos as well as favorite foods and drinks of loved ones.
“If you’re in Chicago, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Chicago-style hot dog in the ofrenda,” Moreno said.
Each year, the museum presents both classic and abstract ideas of what the Day of the Dead means. This year, one traditional display includes a giant white satin-covered piece from Puebla, Mexico for a young artists killed in August.
Another traditional ofrenda was created by students of Matthew Gallistel Language Academy on Chicago’s South Side for their late teacher, Mrs. Edith Padilla. Hers includes certificates, photographs and sympathy notes left by students under rows of “papel picado” (colored sheets of perforated tissue paper) hanging above the ofrenda.
Others are whimsical with a playful take on death and dying. Several artists were commissioned to fill and decorate suitcases with items they would take to the next life. A few artists chose pictures. Others packed things that reflected their personalities, like clown shoes and red underwear.
One of the largest displays is for a teen who died in the Parkland, Florida shooting. Manuel and Patricia Oliver created a floor-to-ceiling image of their son Joaquin, one of the 17 people killed at Stoneman Douglas High School. It shows Joaquín next to the words “la lucha sigue” (the struggle continues”) and features his clothing, medals he won and bronze colored sculpture of a child hiding under a desk.
Even though Day of the Dead is commemorated near the end of October and early November (this year it starts on October 31 and ends on November 2) there is no connection between that holiday and Halloween.
“Halloween is a time when we don’t want to see the ghosts. But Day of the Dead is more of a spiritual celebration,” said Moreno. “It’s a time when we really think about and meditate on life and death.”
While it’s been a tradition for the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who live in the Chicago-area, more non-Mexicans and non-Latinos are creating their own ofrendas for loved ones. Moreno said when the museum first put together its Day of the Dead exhibit decades ago, they got a lot of calls asking what it all about.
“They wondered if it was something kind of evil, or if it was OK for families and children,” recalled Moreno. “It’s actually like a Memorial Day, a day that celebrates life. I’m very proud that this tradition is now part of Chicago. I really think that people understand what Day of the Dead is now. ”
Dia de Muertos: A Spiritual Legacy continues through December 9 at the National Museum of Mexican Art located at 1852 W 19th Street.