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Celebrate the soul: Day of the Dead in Chicago

Published: Saturday, October 27, 2012

Updated: Saturday, October 27, 2012 16:10

day of the dead skull

Hannah Guerrero

Ricardo Linares G., A Dream / Un sueño, 1989, polychrome papier-mâché.

day of the dead

Hannah Guerrero

An "offrenda" made by a number of women part of the El Stich and Bitch collaborative.

Traditional Mexican paper cut out banners, “papel picado”, in bright orange, green, yellow, pink and purple line the walls while smiling sugar skulls, assortments of foods and drinks, and marigold flowers are among items on the altars at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. They are festive decorations to celebrate the life of loved ones that have passed. Instead of expressing grief, sorrow, and wearing black, Mexicans and Latinos alike, accept death as a phase of life.

They celebrate those they loved for two days, Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 on the ancient holiday called, Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead.

The only major museum in Chicago that is free to the public is at its busiest this time of year. They run Day of the Dead tours for their Hanal Pixan/Food for
 he Souls exhibit every half hour from open to close.

“I was joking with the other tour guides that it should be called the National Museum of Day of the Dead. We have an average of 10 school groups per day, it gets really hectic. At the same time, it’s probably what keeps the museum running,” said tour guide, Mario Hernandez.

The ancient holiday celebrated by the indigenous Aztecs, Mayans, Nahua, Totonac and Otomi was on the verge of extinction with the arrival of the Spanish, who viewed their celebration of death as barbaric and sacrilegious. It used to be celebrated throughout the whole month of August, when the Spanish arrived they began to spread Catholicism
by introducing All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Instead of letting this tradition go, they began to mix it with Catholicism and celebrated it on All Saints and All Souls Day.

“If the Natives hadn’t continued to celebrate on those two days chances are it would have disappeared,” said Hernandez.

Even though the date of the holiday has changed, nothing much else has changed. In keeping with the indigenous connection to nature, the altar still represents the four main elements of nature: earth, wind, water and fire.

The Earth is represented by food, such as the specially made, “pan de los muertos," the top of this sweet bread is decorated with what resembles the bones of the dead. The traditional Mexican cut out paper, “papel picado”, represents wind. Candles represent fire, and water is placed on the altar to quench the thirst of the souls after a long journey to the altar.

The Day of the Dead exhibit features many skulls and skeletons. In the pre-Hispanic era, skulls were commonly kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. The skulls are colorful and are meant to celebrate death instead of instilling fear. The exhibit also features various altars each arranged differently according the person it’s for. The exhibit attracts many people who are curious about this holiday.

“People that want to learn more about Mexican culture, because culture is something that’s taken a lot of pride in. There’s this genuine curiosity about the way that death is portrayed. When you’re brought up in the US, death is scary and bad, here you see a culture that views it in the opposite way,” said Rodriguez.

At DePaul, DePaul’s Association for Latino Empowerment (DALE), has a Day of the Dead Week planned starting Oct. 29.

During the week other events pertaining to issues important to Latinos like voting and immigration will take place. Vice President of DALE, Gloria Martinez thinks that these events should broaden people’s cultural understanding.

A Day of the Dead bake sale will take place Oct. 30. They will be selling “pan de muertos” and Mexican hot chocolate. For Stephanie Arroyo, a DALE member and junior at DePaul, bread and hot chocolate are the perfect way to celebrate the holiday.

“My family and I remember the deceased by praying to their spirit. The best thing though is getting together with the family for some pan de muerto and hot chocolate,” said Arroyo.

Arroyo believes that many Mexican-Americans have forgotten what Day of the Dead really means.

“Not many know what it is truly about or how it was about celebrating our ancestors. The traditions may have diminished, but it still remains strong in many Latino communities today,” said Arroyo.

Unlike in Mexico where families go to clean and decorate tombs at the cemetery, families here in the U.S. celebrate in private by making their altars at home.

There are Day of the Dead events in the Pilsen community, the 33rd annual Dia de Muertos, Muertos de la Risa in breathtaking Pilsen, will take
place in Dvorak Park at 1119 W. Cullerton, Nov. 2. There will be face painting, large scale altars, dancing and circus acts.

The Day of the Dead exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art runs until Dec. 16.

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