Celebrating Día de los Muertos in a Country that ‘Needs to Understand Death Better’

Many Americans are squeamish about death. We generally don’t like thinking about it, much less talking about it. But I’ve had an abiding interest in the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, celebrated Oct. 31- Nov. 2, and wanted to lean more.

Beyond the colorfully rendered skulls and elaborate altars dedicated to departed loved ones, the Mexican holiday seems to have a sanguine and healthy take on the subject of death. Mexicans seem to have a more comfortable relationship with death than we gringos do, and I wanted to find out why.

So last week I decided to go to Chicago, home to America’s third largest Mexican-American population and a community that celebrates Day of the Dead with real panache. I started by visiting the National Museum of Mexican Art, where I met up with Chief Curator Cesáreo Moreno.

“Day of the Dead has brought a new understanding of life and death to a society here in the U.S. that really needs to understand death a little bit better,” Moreno told me.

I roamed around the museum and discovered that the ofrendas, literally offerings or altars to the dead, are more than just ways for family members to remember loved ones. In one case, a British artist made an ofrenda to commemorate the 23 people who died at the Ariana Grande concert attack in Manchester on May 22.

A Day of the Dead altar to the victims of the Ariana Grande concert shooting on May 22. The empty card is for the shooter.

A Day of the Dead altar to the victims of the Ariana Grande concert shooting on May 22. The empty card is for the shooter.

Another ofrenda was dedicated to the undocumented and unnamed people who have died recently in Chicago, featuring possessions gathered from the Cook County morgue.

In the museum’s courtyard, I met Elvira Mondragón, who has been traveling back and forth between Mexico and Chicago for 22 years to make decorative sugar skulls for Day of the Dead. Here’s the one she made for me.

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I drove to a local cafe to take a skull-painting class with Carlos Orozco, who traveled from Oaxaca to Chicago with suitcases full of alebrijes, brightly colored folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures, and skulls carved from copal.

Ryan steadies his hand to paint a masterpiece

Ryan steadies his hand to paint a masterpiece

The grand finale was the museum’s Day of the Dead Xicágo, where thousands braved the bracing chill to eat pan de muerto (bread of the dead), get their faces painted, and check out the ofrendas made by others. I was pleasantly surprised by the openness of the festival’s local Mexican-American ofrenda artists, who ushered me into the lives of their loved ones with details like: “My uncle loved to gamble. Here are his poker chips and a can of his favorite cerveza.”

Checking out the ofrendas

Checking out the ofrendas

One woman told me this kind of bridge building is not just important in the current climate of strained relations between Mexico and the United States. “It’s been important to us always, since I was born,” said Evelyn Gonzalez. “We’re not going anywhere.”

I turned to her young daughter, Itzel, whose face paint was heavy on purple, her favorite color.

“What do you love most about Día de los Muertos?” I asked.

She didn’t hesitate. “That memories come back to life.”

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