Video: How the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood celebrates Dia de los Muertos
(Day of the Dead), featuring Mario Hernandez, the museum's visitor services coordinator.

The Soul of Día de los Muertos Alive in Pilsen

By Ernesto Solano and Michelle Garcia De La Vega

Posted: Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017

“Gone, but not forgotten.”

That powerful saying is the embodiment of Día De Los Muertos, a string of days dedicated to the celebration of life and those who lived it.

Día de los Muertos takes place every Nov. 1-2, the same days of the Catholic All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day. Coincidence? No. This Mexican holiday is the syncretism of two belief systems, the Catholic faith that was brought by Spanish conquistadores to Mesoamerica, and indigenous religious rituals.

Día de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico and the rest of Latin America with graveyard visits, candlelight vigils and crafts. Día de los Muertos has trespassed the boundaries of its country of origin, as it can be seen being celebrated in the United States, specifically Chicago, in a similar way to its Latin American roots.

In Chicago, the visual aesthetics of Día de los Muertos take center stage. OfrendasCalacas, and face painting are the key activities during the celebration, and all share the ability to invoke fun and creativity in those participating in it.


  An ofrenda at NMMA’s Día de los Muertos exhibit. (Photo/Michelle Garcia De La Vega)   


Ofrendas are the altars created to honor the lives of family members and/or friends who have passed. They are essential to the holiday, as they are the locations to which souls are invited to by their still living loved ones. They are typically set up a day before the designated veneration day (depending if it is an ofrenda for children or adults) and when their day is over the food on the ofrendas is shared among friends and family members.

The traditional ofrendas consist of seven levels, representations of the seven stages souls are believed to experience in the afterlife before reaching their final destination. The most commonly constructed ofrendas, however, consist of three levels that represent the  cosmological divisions of the world: the heavens, the earth and the underworld.

The ofrendas are also part of several meaningful components, the most fundamental being:

  • Papel picado (thin, colorful paper with cut out designs): represents wind and the “fragility of life”.
  • Candles: the fire is light that illuminates the path for the souls of the deceased, helping them find their way to the ofrenda. Candles are also set to form a cross.
  • Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead): bread specifically used for Day of the Dead. It has the shape of two bones intersecting in the form of a cross on its surface.
  • Cempasúchil (orange marigold flowers): this flower is traditionally used in Mexico  during the Day of the Dead as it symbolizes the “impermanence” of life. It is used to create a path to help guide the souls to the ofrendas.
  • Water: placed to “quench the thirst of the soul(s)” and also a symbol of life and purification.
  • Calavera/Calaca (Skulls/Skeletons): according to indigenous beliefs the skull is one of the major areas in our bodies in which the strongest spiritual forces reside. Skulls are often created with sugar, and skeletons with aluminium wire which is then covered with paper mache. Although both represent death, on Dia de los Muertos they are made to be very lively. The vibrant colors stray away from anything that invokes fear and emphasize the celebratory purpose of the holiday.
  • Pictures: photographs of the individual(s) the ofrenda is being dedicated to symbolize their presence.
  • Food: the individual(s) favorite foods are placed on the ofrenda as an offering to their souls.
  • Personal Items: belongings that the individual being commemorated cherished. (E.g. a hat, a rosary, etc)
  • Crosses and Saints: These are placed a symbol of the Catholic church, but also a representation of the fusion of two belief systems. In pre-columbian times the form of the cross was fundamental in the lives of mesoamerican indigenous groups, as it derived from the four cardinal points of the compass, which grouped spiritual forces and all other living beings.

In addition, the variety of colors included in the ofrendas have special meaning behind them:

  • Purple: signifies mourning and grief
  • Pink: symbolizes happiness and celebration
  • White: represents purity and hope,
  • Red: symbolizes blood and life,
  • Yellow: represents the sun and life

Chicago Celebrates Día

Chicago’s ever-growing latinx population has helped Día de los Muertos become a cultural fixture in the city. Locals construct ofrendas for their lost loved ones at home, shop windows are devoted to Día. Museums host exhibits exclusive to art inspired by the holiday, and community gatherings are arranged, specifically in the Pilsen neighborhood.

ElevArte’s 38th Annual Día de los Muertos Celebration

Dvorak Park’s indoor facility located in Pilsen, also known as ElevARTE Community Studio, holds a free, annual Día event open to the public. Community members from various backgrounds come to learn about Mexican culture, especially Día de los Muertos.

The 38th edition of the longest running Day of the Dead event in Pilsen featured traditional Mexican dances, homemade crafts, a mask decorating station, and multiple face painting stations.

The Benito Juarez Community Academy chapter of BuildOn, a nonprofit organization in charge of after school programs for high schools in the United States, was in attendance to carry out face painting duties. Mexican hot chocolate brand Abuelita also made their presence felt by passing out free samples and coupons.

Yaneli Diaz, a Pilsen resident and annual attendee of ElevARTE’s gathering, said, “I bring my children to this event every year, this is the closest to the actual experience of Día de los Muertos you can get in Chicago. It is important to preserve our culture and hand it down to younger generations. Nobody does Día de los Muertos like Pilsen.”

Thirty-eight years running and this may have been the most important year for it considering comments made about Mexico and its residents by President Trump, as well as the two catastrophic earthquakes in Chiapas and Central Mexico. According to the event’s Facebook page, “Elevarte Community Studio wishes to showcase the greatest act of resistance that we can take as a community during these times of trials and tribulations.”

The National Museum of Mexican Art

The National Museum of Mexican Art (NNMA) in Pilsen not only has strong ties to the holiday, but a strong influence on the community. NMMA was founded in 1982 on a mission “to showcase the beauty and richness of Mexican culture by sponsoring events and presenting exhibitions that exemplify the majestic variety of visual and performing arts in the Mexican culture” (via NMMA’s website).

Día de los Muertos brings out a variety of events from the museum, such as, extended open hours, and the Día Masquerade Ball, however, it is Día de los Muertos Xicago outdoor and indoor event that best demonstrates latinx creativity and emotion.

At Día de los Muertos Xicago, families participate by creating ofrendas for their loved ones to share with others, reminding visitors that this holiday is not just about the colorful decorations and sugar skulls, but about a loss that caused someone a deep and inevitable pain.

Visitor Services Coordinator Mario Hernandez, who has been organizing and guiding tours for 11 yearssaid the museum’s goal during Día de los Muertos is to educate visitors on the roots and traditional aspects of the Latin American holiday.

As cultures change or evolve over time so do the holidays and Día de los Muertos is not the exception,


 Part of an ofrenda at NMMA’s Día de los Muertos Xicago event. (Photo/Michelle García De La Vega)


“One of the big signs we have seen of Día de los Muertos growing is that the commercialization of the tradition is beginning to happen, whether it’s through movies or big box stores with sections or aisles dedicated to the holiday,” Hernandez said.  

Hernandez is referring to is Coco, a Disney animated film about the Day of the Dead. The film received critical acclaim and financial success since its release, topping films like superhero blockbuster Justice League in first-weekend box office success at $75 million, and earning a total of $108.7 million in its first 10 days in the United States alone. But it  received major backlash years before its release. In 2013, Disney filed a trademark for the phrase “Día de los Muertos” for a future film, Coco.

Disney wanting a piece of the Día de los Muertos pie is an indicator of how far the holiday has come in the United States.

“Because of this, people will begin to focus more on the aesthetics of the tradition, but really, this tradition has to do with people,” Hernandez said.

Despite threats to the tradition, Hernandez finds a certain part of the evolution captivating. Through the yearly exhibits at NMMA, he has seen how artists have used ofrendas to raise awareness about social issues and give a voice to those who can no longer do it for themselves. He brought up an exhibit NMMA hosted in 2009 dedicated to the infamous Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968 in Mexico in which hundreds of university students were murdered by military and police.

“The whole room was a tribute to all the people that died on that day, and it brought attention to this massacre that a lot of our visitors that had no idea about this massacre," he said, "and it also brought attention to the fact that the numbers were false.” 

Hernandez brings up the fact that the Mexican government attempted to lower the number of civilians slain in documents when, in reality, the numbers were much higher. He added,

“As much as it’s important to learn about the Day of the Dead’s history," he said, "the tradition allows us to use this as a tool to talk about these big social issues.”

Return to The Red Line Project

Feedback: Contact the reporter via Twitter or leave a comment below.


Social | Video