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Day of the Dead takes over National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen

Works from the National Museum of Mexican Art's exhibit, "Dia de Muertos: A Spiritual Legacy," open now through Dec. 9. | Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times

Death makes no plans — but you should.

Throughout the fall, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen will honor the dead and explore the afterworld through an exhibit and events for Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead.

During the three-day Mexican holiday, beginning Oct. 31, family and friends pray and remember lost loved ones, often building “ofrendas,” or altars, adorned with photos of the deceased, their favorite foods and commemorative flowers.

This year’s Día de los Muertos exhibit, now on display, features traditional and contemporary works reflecting the Mexican community’s layered understanding of death, molded by centuries of indigenous traditions, colonization and migration. Admission to the museum, 1852 W. 19th St., is free.

The exhibit runs through Dec. 9, but the museum’s celebration culminates with “Día de Los Muertos Xicago,” a free neighborhood get-together Oct. 28 at Harrison Park, next to the museum. It will have altars, music, face painting and plenty of “pan de muerto,” a traditional sweet bread made for the holiday.

Organizers will also display a digital ofrenda; photos of the recently deceased, sent in by friends and family, will be projected on the outside of the museum. Oct. 15 was the deadline to submit a photograph.

Mario Hernandez, head of the museum’s planning committee for the event, expects this year’s celebration to eclipse past ones.

“Día de los Muertos has become very recognizable in pop culture, and we see that through an increase in interest in the museum and the exhibit,” he said.

Video by Maria de la Guardia

At the beginning of the exhibit visitors will find “The Veliz Project,” a collection of 30 “velices,” or suitcases, filled and decorated by a local artist with what they would choose to bring with them to the afterlife. Traditionally, indigenous communities in Western Mexico would bury their loved ones with tools and objects to help the soul on its way to the next world.

Some artists filled their suitcase with objects that harken memories of loved ones and good times. Others were more practical, making their suitcases into a telephone or a “molcajete,” a type of mortar, dating to the Aztecs and Mayans, that is used to make salsa.

Following the suitcases are model ofrendas from different regions in Mexico.

Celebrations of Día de Los Muertos across Mexico vary by region. Altars from Puebla, near the center of the country, often are decorated with Catholic symbols and iconography. In western Mexico, the holiday encompasses more indigenous traditions and values.

“These traditions are hundreds of years old and take on the regions’ understanding of life and death,” Hernandez said.

Works from the National Museum of Mexican Art’s exhibit “Dia de Muertos: A Spiritual Legacy” open now through Dec. 9. | Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times
Works from the National Museum of Mexican Art’s exhibit “Dia de Muertos: A Spiritual Legacy” open now through Dec. 9. | Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times

Many Mexican immigrants brought these traditions with them as they branched out across North America over the last three centuries.

Altars made in the United States have their own particular style, Hernandez said; they’re “a lot more personalized than those in Mexico.”

The exhibit’s three altars made in honor of three recently deceased teachers and artists reflect this style of altar making.

An altar for Raquel Ontiveros, one of Chicago’s first female mariachis, is topped with memorabilia and totems dedicated to her pioneering career. Edith Padilla’s altar brings attention to the lives she touched as a counselor at Matthew Gallistel Languages Academy in South Chicago for 30 years. Photographer Laura Aguilar‘s altar puts her camera front and center, with cacti and Homies toys evoking nostalgia for her native Southern California, whose deserts she often used as her canvas.

Curators included a toy display with a reference to “Chichihuacuauhco,” the Aztec’s special resting place for children who die at a young age. That was to honor 10 children who perished in a house fire in Little Village Aug. 26.

Paintings, sculptures and other works of art that speak to Día de los Muertos are also featured through the exhibit. Fans of the Disney movie “Coco” will recognize the “alebrijes” behind plexiglass. (While “alebrijes” has no direct translation, the characters are often colorful, scary — and defy imagination.)

Works from the National Museum of Mexican Art’s exhibit “Dia de Muertos: A Spiritual Legacy” open now through Dec. 9. | Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times
Works from the National Museum of Mexican Art’s exhibit “Dia de Muertos: A Spiritual Legacy” open now through Dec. 9. | Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times

Last week, the museum hosted its first Día de los Muertos “after dark” session of the season, where local artists host workshops on how to make ofrenda decorations, such as flowers made out of paper mache. The next session is Nov. 1.

Maria Galindo, 69, and her daughter Grace Ayala, 29, were busy making flowers and chit chatting with people next to them during the workshop.

Galindo, who came to Chicago from Mexico in the 1970s, said she brought the tradition of the holiday with her so she could teach her children about their motherland and honor family members they never met.

“It’s a good way of remembering your roots,” she said in Spanish.

Ayala said she plans on keeping the tradition alive.

“It’s nice to remember the dead like this. It’s like they’re almost there with us in the room,” she said.

Across the table from Galindo and Ayala was Irma Rodriguez, 70, a Pilsen native who started celebrating the holiday only two years ago, after her first trip to Mexico.

“The way they honor the dead, it’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s never too late to learn about your culture.”