By Yolanda Perdomo, CBS Digital Producer
CHICAGO (CBS) — This year, a special Mexican holiday happens to land on a day that, traditionally, has people in this country dressing up in scary costumes.
But the two events, Halloween and Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — couldn’t be more different.
“Really it’s a very spiritual, a very holy day. It’s a day in which our community goes and visits the cemeteries, talks about the dead, talks about those who are no longer living,” said Cesareo Moreno, chief curator at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. “It’s not about scary monsters or anything like that. It’s about our grandparents, our aunts and uncles.”
The museum is presenting “Dia de los Muertos – A Matter Of Life.” It’s the institution’s 33rd annual exhibit which, as in previous years, features a different theme and different artists from the United States and Mexico who create colorful installations for the Day of the Dead.
“(It’s) the day of the year in which we are able to discuss death. It really has a transformative effect on the rest of the year,” Moreno said. “And the traditions around the Day of the Dead are age-old, but they’re also very holistic and healing. It really does help with grieving.”
Families across Mexico will spend the day at the cemeteries with friends, family, music and memories. There’s also a private part of the event, where people gather in their homes to reminisce and to enjoy the favorite foods of the deceased, to honor their memory.
LA COSTA CHICA
The exhibit takes about a year to organize and curate. This year, the museum highlighted the Pacific coast of Mexico known as “La Costa Chica” and how the region celebrates the tradition that goes back centuries.
“It’s a part of Mexico where the Afro-descendientes (descendants) really hang on and celebrate their culture. It’s along the border of Oaxaca and Guerrero,” noted Moreno, who said they have what’s called the “dance of the devils” where people playfully dance throughout the streets. There’s the principal devil and his partner known as “La Minga,” who carries a whip to keep him in line.
“They’re not evil beings but they’re more spiritual beings. And they basically have a dance that starts in the cemetery. They’re all dressed up in costumes and they welcome back the dead. And from the cemetery they dance throughout the town escorting the spirits back to earth,” he said.
Families in Chicago will visit cemeteries during this time, much in the way they do in Mexico. Moreno said the exhibit not only illustrates the beautiful elements associated with an ofrenda (an altar or table set up with pictures and objects of the deceased) but its significance.
“I think we have a very important role in the city of Chicago to educate people on where this tradition comes from, the true meaning behind it and how they can make it their own and take some of the traditions with them to their own homes.”
Artists from the United States and Mexico have traditionally put together installations for the exhibit. But non-artists have also created beautiful ofrendas for their loved ones to be displayed at the museum.
Take Cynthia Elisa Torres. She joined her mother and sister to assemble a large flower-covered installation to honor her grandmother Elisa Sarmiento de Arellano, affectionately known as “Mama Licha.” It includes pictures, candles, flowers and personal effects.
“She was so loving and caring, we wanted to get her personality here so we started planning this a year ago,” said Torres, who first got the museum’s attention last year when she and her family put together an outdoor ofrenda for Mama Licha (who died in 2018) as part of the communal Day of the Dead Xicágo.
“We did sketches, we got her personality together, her bible, her hoja de frijoles, certain kinds of details that you can look at it and get a feel for her tamales, her frijoles, her enchiladas. So those are things she was known for,” Torres said.
This year’s indoor display is, according to Torres, a reflection of who she was as a person, a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who raised her family in Chicago with kindness and pride.
“I would love for them just to know who Mama Licha was. To me, she was a wonderful woman, a hard working immigrant woman who came here for a better life. Who provided her children and grandchildren with so much love, unconditionally,” Torres said. “It’s been a wonderful healing process for myself and my family. Instead of being sad about her not being here, we’re talking about her in joy and happiness and celebration of life.”
And that, according to Moreno, is really the basic foundation for the Day of the Dead exhibit. To showcase who these people were to their friends and family. And even though they’re no longer with us, their impact lives on.
“We wanted to focus on the idea that it’s a part of life. Even though the word “dead” is in the Day of the Dead, it’s a matter of life. It truly is about the living and those of us who remain here remembering the memory of those who are no longer here,” Moreno said.