The Mexican holiday Day of the Dead has gone mainstream in recent years, but a new mural on 26th Street in Little Village — the heart of the Mexican community in the Midwest — reaffirms Dia de Muertos as a family affair.
The mural, “Celebrando Comunidad,” wraps around Nuevo Leon, 3657 W. 26th St., a Mexican restaurant around since 1977.
AARP Chicago commissioned the mural and enlisted graffiti artist Elizabeth “Liz” Reyes to paint it.
The mural features an elderly skeleton couple standing shoulder to shoulder with the iconic mountain range Cerro de la Silla in the background. The woman’s purple dress snakes down the building toward kids playing in front of Little Village’s terra cotta arch alongside bare-boned mariachis. Scattered across the mural are marigolds, known in Mexico as “flower of the dead.”
Reyes, whose family is from the Mexican state of Michoacan, used more than 200 cans of spray paint to finish the mural, which she dedicated to those she’s loved and lost.
“Dia de Muertos is about remembering the lives of our loved ones. That’s who I thought about when I was painting,” she said.
Observed on Nov. 2, Day of the Dead is rooted in pre-Columbian indigenous traditions. Departed ancestors are believed to make their way back to the terrestrial plane to counsel loved ones and enjoy their favorite foods, left for them upon altars known as ofrendas.
Nuevo Leon owner Laura Gutierrez-Ramos says her grandmother Maria Gonzalez brought the holiday with her when she migrated to Chicago from Salinas Victoria in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon with her husband Emeterio in the 1950s.
The couple had four sons. Two opened restaurants named Nuevo Leon — one in Little Village, which Gutierrez-Ramos runs with her father, and one in Pilsen, which burned down in 2015.
Gutierrez-Ramos says her grandmother never missed a chance to go home for Day of the Dead to honor her roots.
“We had ofrendas at home growing up but nothing like they did in Mexico,” Gutierrez-Ramos says. “Grandma wouldn’t miss a Nov. 2 in her hometown. By late October, she would be running around figuring out how to get to Salinas.”
Gonzalez died in 2008 at 85.
“Oh, she would’ve loved the mural,” Gutierrez Ramos says.
She says AARP approached her a year ago about painting a mural. She didn’t need to think long before agreeing.
“Our restaurant already has murals on the inside,” she says. “This is our heritage, our way of giving back to the neighborhood.”
Alvaro Obregon runs AARP Illinois’ outreach efforts in the Latino community in Chicago.
“It’s our gift to the Mexican community to let people know that we’re here, we’re in your neighborhood, and we want to be a resource for you,” Obregon said.
On Friday, AARP and Nuevo Leon hosted a block party outside the restaurant to unveil the mural. (AARP Chicago is the presenting sponsor of the Sun-Times series on the city’s murals and mosaics.)
Live musicians from Mexico performed in front of the dead ones on the mural, and two face-painting stations turned kids’ faces into colorful skulls and attendees enjoyed tamales, sweet bread and hot drinks.
Among the dozens in the crowd was Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd). The mural, he said, “gives the neighborhood a renewed energy and spirit to celebrate our culture.”
Obregon says he hopes the mural brings attention to services the organization offers, especially its caregiver-preparedness programs.
Obregon, who was born and raised in Pilsen and continues to live in the neighborhood, had an aunt he helped take care of who died of leukemia a few years ago.
“Two times a week, I had to take her to the doctor, until she passed away last November,” Obregon says. “I never realized I was a caregiver. I just thought I was being a good nephew.”
AARP Chicago is hosting a caregiving conference in Spanish Nov. 9 at the Arturo Velasquez Institute, 2800 S. Western Ave.
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps members of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.