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Pilsen Day of The Dead Celebration Draws National Participation

Dia De Los Muertos- traditional ofrenda (Photo/Nick Garcia)
Dia De Los Muertos– traditional ofrenda (Photo/Nick Garcia)

PILSEN — The annual “Day of The Dead” celebration put on by The National Museum of Mexican Art last Sunday was a community effort to behold.

Food, art, and music filled the neighborhood in celebration of loved ones lost.

Citizens flooded the museum grounds by Harrison Park in the Pilsen neighborhood to join the festive celebration. This year the attendance was triple last year’s attendance of over 2,000, a museum official said.

For the first year the museum brought together local artists, neighbors, community leaders and showcased more than 75 “ofrendas” or “alters,” creating a truly interactive art experience.

Two of the Chicago artists responsible for much of the content that was displayed were Arte Ambulante Coordinator, Eric Garcia and local media artist Mark Anderson.

A line wrapped around the museum with spectators waiting to get a glimpse of Garcia’s individual pieces.

Anderson and his team were responsible for the animation displayed on the two-story museum wall as people approached. Over a hundred submissions from all over the United States contributed to the collection of photos of the dead, bracketed by wreaths displaying the years of their birth and death that were shown during the five-hour long celebration.

“Our job as artists is to make things come to fruition,” Anderson said.

Anderson, 37, is a Chicago native and holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree and teaches at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College Chicago.

Anderson said seeing residents and the community come together in a “fantastic collaboration” with the museum was a project he hopes to be a part of next year.

“Events like this are full of diversity, full of traditions and excitement,” Anderson said.

Pilsen resident and artist Eric Garcia, echoed Anderson’s sentiments.

“An event like this gives people of Mexican descent living in Chicago a sense of pride,” he said.

Garcia, 38, originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico has lived in Chicago for eight years.

Festivals like this are very important to a neighborhood both traditionally and economically, Garcia said.

“It allows people from all over to experience Mexican culture, whether it’s eating the food or visiting the museum and local shops.”

An ofrenda decorated with a guitar playing skeleton. (Photo/Nick Garcia)
An ofrenda decorated with a guitar playing skeleton. (Photo/Nick Garcia)

The alters were set up on a turf field next to the museum. Many of them were decorated with candles, photos, flowers and small personal trinkets to honor loved ones.

When speaking with the community, a few local citizens were happy to share the stories behind their personal altars.

Lourdes Zavala said she celebrates this tradition every year in her home, but this was the first year she was excited to share her altar with so many people.

“This is a great experience and I hope it continues,” said Zavala, who’s ofrenda was decorated to honor eight family members she lost.

Pablo Rangel, who lost his father Johnny over a year ago, said he was invited to participate by members of the museum and that in doing so [this] has “helped him heal.”

Rangel said his mother was the curator of all his father’s possessions and in creating his father’s ofrenda she too, has begun to feel a sense of relief.

“This helps her cope; it has brought a genuine smile to her face, something I never thought I would see again,” Rangel said.

“There are about 70 other ofrendas here and in doing this you get to talk with someone else who knows the pain and joys of love and death.”

The event was partially sponsored by an IncentOvate Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events. The grant was used primarily for website construction, which was used to collect images and purchase projection screens, decorations, music, tents and pan de muerto or bread of the dead.

The museum held a public panel a few days before the celebration to discuss different cultures, traditions and death rituals. Day of The Dead workshops were also set up around the city, all paid for by the IncentOvate Grant.

Along with the grant, Jumping Bean Café, Felix’s Cookies and Nuevo Leon all donated other various food items like hot chocolate, cookies and more pan de muerto. Musical contributions came from Solorio High School and Mariachi Perla.

When asked whether the grant would be available for next year’s celebration, Eric Garcia did not know, but said that wont stop the museum from being ready.

The annual celebration is known for honoring those who have died. But as Rangel said, “knowing about others helps one know themselves,” which from a neighborhood perspective is a true treasure to witness.

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