What is Día de los Muertos?
Day of the Dead has been observed across Latin America for centuries as a day to honor and celebrate the lives of people we have lost. This celebration is a 3,000-year-old tradition that is incredibly strong and visible in our beloved Mexico and in Mexican and Latin American communities across the US. While specific customs to celebrate may vary across regions of Mexico and Latin America, the general sentiment is to reunite with our loved ones who have died in a celebration that honors them and guides them to find peace and eternal rest. Many other countries around the world have similar traditions honoring the dead; the truth is that we can all relate to the universal experience of loss and longing as we remember the lives of our loved ones.
What does El Día de los Muertos mean to Philadelphia?
In Philadelphia, we honor the tradition by celebrating together as a diverse Latinx community that continues to grow and share culture. Whether we are of Mexican descent or not, we all share the need to contribute and keep this tradition in our region as a means to unite and celebrate our Latinidad. Heritage is extremely important in this conversation as our community shares a diverse ancestral composition that includes Native American, African, European, and Asian roots. This genetic diversity that we now embrace is the result of the pain and suffering of our ancestors inflicted by European colonization in the Americas. In order to celebrate, we must also acknowledge and honor our past; the intention of this year’s celebration is to bring us closer together by honoring the dead and our heritage.
In this, our 10th Anniversary of the Day of the Dead at Fleisher Art Memorial, we acknowledge the importance of this holiday for the country of Mexico and for all of the immigrants living in the region with cultural ties to the holiday. For this reason, La Calaca Flaca committee—the Latinx committee responsible for organizing this event year after year—decided to honor our diversity and heritage and invite the entire Latinx community to join in.
What is different this year?
Mauricio Perez is our featured artist this year. An artist of Colombian descent, Mauricio decided to dig into his own culture in order to come up with a creative vision for Day of the Dead that honors both the traditional holiday and his ancestry. This year we are including elements of Colombia’s history and folklore. In order to understand the artist’s vision, we must understand the following:
• The Muisca are the indigenous people of what we know today as Bogota and the surrounding regions in Colombia.
• Lake Guatavita was a sacred site for the Muisca civilization. Perhaps created by a meteor or salt deposits, the lake is completely enclosed by mountains. It is located one hour away from Bogota and it is usually referred to as La Laguna del Cacique Guatavita.
• Páramo is a high-altitude ecosystem in South America. The frailejones, which translates to Big Monks, are unique native plants to this ecosystem. They are extremely important plants due to their medicinal attributes and for capturing water and releasing it back into the earth through their root systems. They are also considered to be the guardians of the sacred lake undoubtedly due to their imposing appearance.
• The Legend of El Dorado has many versions but they all share a common detail: each places a chieftain, or Zipa, on a wooden raft in the middle of Lake Guatavita, ritualistically bathing his gold-covered body and offering gold treasures which were thrown into the lake as offerings to the Gods, often specifically to Chie, goddess of water, to bring prosperity or to bring back the dead.
• Many Spanish conquistadores would embark in expeditions looking for gold in the area based on rumors of this legend.
• La Balsa Muisca, which was discovered in 1969, is a pre-Colombian gold votive created by the indigenous Muisca people. This piece confirms the existence of the Muisca ritual and gives validity to the legend and the ceremony of El Dorado.
Fleisher Art Memorial will showcase La Ofrenda along with Mauricio Perez’s vision in our Sanctuary space. A mirage of water will spill from La Ofrenda into a lake surrounded by mountains in which the richness of our heritage lives through the alluring and meaningful color of gold which plays an important role in our celebrations this year.
The value of gold for the indigenous people of our lands was metaphysical, a way to express love, honor the living and the dead, and a way to exalt Mother Earth. Gold came from nature and was returned to nature, mimicking the same cycle we, as humans, experience on Earth. We all hope that we will be remembered and loved after we depart and just like gold, we want to shine forever after. Gold symbolizes many things in the context of the spiritual and it has always been associated with the sun, the Earth’s source of energy. Depending on the culture you consider, gold can also symbolize enlightenment, wealth, protection, strength, and immortality. Gold in our celebrations will symbolize an offering to our departed and will serve as protection to our community.
We invite everyone to join us and participate, but most importantly to learn and honor this tradition with our people. Our Day of the Dead celebrations are created by our Latinx community and for our Latinx community.
– La Calaca Flaca Committee
About Mauricio Perez
Mauricio Perez was born and raised in Sogamoso, Colombia. As a child, he quickly developed an interest in the arts and in using his hands as his preferred creative tool. He experimented with drawing, painting and sculpture and later pursued a degree in Visual Arts and Sculpture at the Universidad Nacional de Bogota. After moving to the States, Mauricio found a community in Philadelphia through La Calaca Flaca committee and became a core participant of the Day of the Dead celebrations at Fleisher Art Memorial.
As a faculty member, he has taught several paper mache workshops for adults and was part of the Art Adventures program for children which provided art lessons to Philadelphia youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mauricio is also a teaching artist at La Puerta Abierta, an organization dedicated to providing art therapy to recently arrived, undocumented immigrant youth and he has also been involved with other organizations such as The Welcoming Center, Juntos, and Puentes de Salud. As a master paper mache artist, Mauricio is sought after, commissioned, and collected by patrons all over the world.
2022 La Calaca Flaca Committee
Leticia Roa Nixon
Ivonne Pinto García
Erika Guadalupe Nuñez
José Ortiz Pagan
Juan Carlos Romero
Fleisher Calaquero: Gerard Silva