What is El Día de los Muertos?
El Día de los Muertos (the 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 Mexico and in 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 celebration is to bring us closer together by honoring the dead and our heritage.
Día de los Muertos Celebration at Fleisher: Saturday, October 28, 2023
La Ofrenda 2023: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire
You can’t speak of Day of the Dead without referencing la ofrenda, the altar of offerings to honor the deceased. That’s because la ofrenda is the heart and soul of this tradition and the reason why, year after year, we come together at Fleisher Art Memorial to build a community altar. The collective love for our dearly departed manifests itself in this display of joyful and sentimental commemoration.
The annual Día de los Muertos Celebration at Fleisher Art Memorial has long been guided by the vision of a solo guest artist. For our 2023 celebration, we are fortunate to welcome two revered community figures who decided to join forces, bringing their awareness and a shared vision to this year’s celebrations. The guest artists for 2023 are Erika Guadalupe Nuñez and Ivonne Pinto García.
To understand the vision of the two artists, we also need to understand the significance and importance of the elements in the altar. The following is a brief introduction about the tradition of la ofrenda and the reason why we build it at Fleisher.
La Ofrenda and Fleisher Art Memorial
La Ofrenda represents and honors the people we have lost that were close to us. In Mexico and other Latin American countries that celebrate this tradition, the altars are assembled in the family home to create a pleasant and familiar space to which souls can return and feel welcomed. As a community of immigrants living far from the traditional celebrations of their homelands, the Latinx community in South Philadelphia creates one altar to admire, to inspire, and to unite.
With its unique history, the Sanctuary at Fleisher Art Memorial has proven to be the right space to host La Ofrenda for the community. Designed in the 1880s as an Episcopal church, the building was purchased by Samuel Fleisher in 1922 to serve as a place to celebrate and teach about the reforming power of art and beauty in everyday life – effectively becoming a Sanctuary for Art. It has also been home to La Ofrenda since 2012.
The Elements and Offerings
An ofrenda consists of 2 to 12 levels depending on the tradition in that particular region or town and the available space. Typically, most ofrendas will have either 3 or 7 levels, with the top level representing heaven and the ground representing earth.
What is placed in an ofrenda has to do with the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The presence of these elements is crucial when building an altar, and this year our guest artists decided to emphasize the importance of the four elements and the indigenous origins which suggest that everything in life has a natural, predetermined cycle. The representation of the elements in an ofrenda is the fusion of pre-Hispanic theology and Christianity. This complex combination of tradition and ritual is represented in the altars in ways both obvious and subtle.
First, the four elements are represented:
- Water (Agua): represents the fountain of life. Usually, a pitcher or glass of water is placed to quench the thirst of the souls during their journey.
- Candles (Velas): represent the fire and function as guiding lights for souls to find their way into our world and to la ofrenda.
- Mexican Perforated Paper and Handmade Paper Flowers (Papel Picado y Flores hechas de Papel): represent the wind. These colorful paper cutouts or flowers are also meant to symbolize the fragility of life, due to the ephemeral nature of paper.
- Fruits (Frutas): pay homage to the earth, celebrating nature’s abundance. These sweet seasonal offerings are a necessity on any altar.
Other traditional offerings are added to complement the four traditional elements:
- Salt (Sal): needed for the purification of the souls
- Marigold (La Flor de Cempasúchil): symbolizes the sun. In addition to adorning the altars, the petals and the fragrance are used to mark the path to la ofrenda. No ofrenda should be without them and because they are seasonal in Mexico, they mark the arrival of autumn, the season of Day of the Dead.
- Copal or Incense or Herb Bundle (Copal o Incienso o Sahumerio): used to make a sacred space wherever you have an ofrenda. Copal, derived from tree resin, is our preferred incense due to its indigenous origins. It offers a cleansing of the space as well as protection from evil.
- Belongings of the Deceased (Artículos del Fallecido): in an ofrenda in one’s home, photos of the dearly departed are placed with objects that serve as reminders of them to welcome them on their return. Even food and beer can be found on the altars! For La Ofrenda at Fleisher, we invite the community to place photographs and objects to honor their loved ones.
- Bread of the Dead (Pan de Muerto): Day of the Dead sweet bread meant to be shared among the living and offered to the dead, with many meanings depending on the beliefs of specific regions in Mexico. For some, it symbolizes the body of Christ and our shared humanity. This offering evolved as a representation of Indigenous sacrifices in which the human heart was used as an offering.
- Sugar Skulls (Calaveras de Azúcar o Alfeñiques): the most iconic symbol of Day of the Dead, representing the fleeting aspect of life. In pre-Hispanic times, real skulls were used in rituals about passing from life to another level, to the spiritual world. After colonialism, sugar skulls made an appearance on the ofrendas with the deceased’s name engraved on them. Sometimes the name of someone living is written on these sweet offerings to remind us that the only definite thing in life is death.
- Sand Tapestry (Tapete de Arena): a rug made of sand and always located on the floor in front of the altar. Sometimes the rug is made of rice, beans, corn, dirt, or anything organic. Day of the Dead tapetes are meant to represent the transition of life to death, as we all become organic matter when we die. Tapetes are especially common in the Oaxaca region of Mexico.
- Skeletons (Calacas): the most recognized figure of Day of the Dead celebrations. Found in celebrations throughout Mexico, la calaca is a happy figure that represents our dearly departed. While it isn’t always displayed on la ofrenda, this figure can always be found as a prominent part of Day of the Dead festivities.
- The Dapper Skull (La Catrina): an early 20th century creation by Mexican artist, cartoonist and engraver José Guadalupe Posada based on the Aztec figure of Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death. In 1947, artist Diego Rivera immortalized the figure in his mural titled “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Central Park.” In this work, Rivera added an elegant period dress that complemented the sumptuous hat Posada had already given her, giving birth to La Catrina. This cemented her popularity in Mexican culture, serving as a reminder to honor one’s indigenous roots and to remember, as Posada once said, that death is democratic.
Alternate date in case of rain: Sunday, October 29. For more information, please contact Gerard Silva at email@example.com. El Día de los Muertos celebration is made possible by the generous support of the National Endowment for the Arts.
2023 Guest Artists
Ivonne Pinto García
Ivonne Pinto García is an artist, activist and community organizer from San Martín Texmelucan de Labastida, in Puebla, Mexico. In 2005, Ivonne immigrated to Philadelphia where she involved herself in the local cultural scene, assisting other artists and promoting Mexican culture. She is well-known for leading workshops in the creation of sugar skulls, which she has done for Fleisher Art Memorial, Magic Gardens, and Cesar Andreu Iglesias Gardens. In 2022, she created an altar in Love Park to celebrate and educate visitors attending the City of Philadelphia’s Day of the Dead festivities.
Pinto recognizes art as being at the intersection of community and health, and has been critical in building strong support networks within the Mexican community of Philadelphia. She helps facilitate access to quality healthcare, education, expression, and wellness opportunities for members of the community. As a grassroots organizer, Pinto has also been a great advocate and supporter for institutions like Puentes de Salud, where she has volunteered for over ten years, as well as MILPA (The Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania).
Erika Guadalupe Nuñez
Erika Guadalupe Núñez is a queer immigrant, artist, and cultural organizer currently serving as the Executive Director of JUNTOS. After emigrating from Mexico at a young age with her mother, Guadalupe grew up sin papeles (without papers) and eventually sin miedo (without fear), which inspired her work as a community organizer for immigrant rights in both local and national campaigns since 2011.
Developed as an organizer by both JUNTOS and Mijente, Guadalupe has dedicated the past decade of her life to her work as an organizer fighting against the criminalization, detention, and deportation of her community. She believes that a world without cages – in all of its forms – is possible. As the former resident artist of JUNTOS, Guadalupe’s public work centered around creating art for rallies and cultural celebrations with members of her community, to both highlight issues of inequality as they pertain to the immigrant rights movement and preserve traditions for future generations.
Guadalupe is a member of Mijente’s Leadership Circle and has been recognized for both her cultural work and community organizing with various awards and fellowships: GALAEI’s David Acosta Revolutionary Leadership Award in 2015, Leeway Art & Change Grants in 2015 and 2017, and the Leeway Transformation Award in 2017. Recent fellowships have included the Knight Foundation’s Emerging City Champions Fellowship and the Advocacy Leadership Institute with the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC).