Luis Vega works around thousands of dead people every day in his job at the Forest Home Cemetery. He also has fresh memories of how his family celebrated El Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—back home in Mexico, since he moved to this area from Mexico only a few years ago.
He pointed out several ways the Mexican way of keeping All Saints Day is different from the American celebration of Halloween. Vega said that in his home Nov. 1 would be devoted to making preparations. They would bake pan de muertos, bread of the dead ones, and cook foods that deceased relatives especially liked. They would place pictures of these relatives on an offrenda (altar) they would build in their home along with the special foods, fruit, flowers and scented candles.
Then, on Nov. 2 they would celebrate. He described the celebration as if it were a big, happy family reunion. “Los espiritus regresan [their spirits return],” he said in explanation of why his family felt the presence of the departed relatives with them.
Evidence of a growing Hispanic presence in Forest Park is seen at the Forest Home Cemetery in the Our Lady of Guadalupe section, where tombstones with names like Garcia, Duran, Alvarez, Ramirez and Torres lie adjacent to a plot where the names on the stones read Kessler, Langlotz, Frundt and Zietz. These gravesites show evidence of loving remembrance by family members, who leave balloons, toys, flowers and candles and who visit frequently.
Rosie Comargo, who is Outreach Librarian for the Forest Park Public Library and comes from a Columbian family, gets her firsthand knowledge of the Day of the Dead from her sister who lives in Mexico and whom she visits often. “It’s different than Halloween here,” she said. “It’s more of a happy celebration. It’s a way of expressing love for deceased relatives. Families tell stories about relatives who have passed away, share memories and do a lot of laughing.”
One of the staples of celebrating the Day of the Dead for Mexicans is decorating calaveras, or skulls made out of sugar. “We have skulls,” Comargo explained, “but we dress them up and decorate them with bold colors, reds and royal blue and rich purple. We beautify the calaveras, because death is beautiful.”
Comargo hosted a Celebrate Dia de los Muertos event this morning in the lower level of the Forest Park Library which was scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. At the event, children were able to decorate masks that they can wear, sang songs, heard stories in both Spanish and English and, of course, decorated their own calaveras.
The Dia de los Muertos celebration took place at the same time as Comarago’s weekly bi-lingual play time happens. She estimates that 60 percent of the adults who bring children to the play time are people, including many nannies, whose primary language is English and who want their pre-school children to get “an ear” for Spanish. The remaining 40 percent are adults whose primary language is Spanish and want their kids to get a head start on learning English.
Comargo said that many Hispanics, like herself who were raised in the U.S., feel like they have lost a lot of their heritage and now are yearning to recover some of it, often in order to pass it on to their children. Vega admited that he no longer celebrates the Day of the Dead since moving to this area. Reyna Ruiz, whose family runs Mom’s Restaurant right next to the U-Haul store on Harlem Ave, said the same. “We came here when I was two,” she explained. “My mother talks about it sometimes, but I really don’t know anything about it. My kids celebrate Halloween.”
Comargo said that although she spoke nothing but Spanish until she started going to school, “by second grade I had forgotten my Spanish. Thankfully, I retaught myself how to speak it.” She said that part of her mission at the library is to educate the community regarding the richness and diversity in the Hispanic community. “We’re not all Mexicans,” she said. “The Day of the Dead is not just a Mexican holiday. In Columbia it’s more of a religious time, more like All Saints Day here.”
She urged Forest Parkers to visit the National Museum of Mexican Art located at 1852 W. 19th St. in Chicago’s Pilsen Neighborhood, which has an ongoing exhibition of calaveras, masks and other art inspired by Dia de los Muertos.
This month, the museum hosts a special exhibit on the art of Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) who drew the iconic skeleton images of fancy ladies he called “Catrina” in gowns and ornate Sunday-best hats.
In an online article at About.com Guide, Gerald Erichsen said that Dia de los Muertos has its origins in Aztec culture as well as the Christian tradition. “During the time of the Aztecs,” he wrote,” a month-long summer celebration was overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. After the Aztecs were conquered by Spain and Catholicism became the dominant religion, the customs became intertwined with the Christian commemoration of All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1.”