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Chicagoans mourn and remember lost loved ones on the Day of the Dead

A Day of the Dead celebration in Chicago. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)
A Day of the Dead celebration in Chicago. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

Isabel Hernandez loves decorating her garden for the holidays, and this year she’s gone all out for Día de Los Muertos.

On the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday, people pay tribute to loved ones who have died. Using 178 milk crates donated by a food pantry down the street, Hernandez built a 15-foot-tall altar in the shape of a pyramid.

Hernandez reached out to her neighbors for photos of loved ones they’ve lost. More than 200 people sent in photos of friends, family members and pets they’re remembering this year. Their black-and-white pictures cover the walls of the pyramid, standing out against the brightly colored flowers, candles and tissue paper wafting in the wind.

“I’m a person who always has to give back,” she says, “and this is my way to pay tribute to the community.”

Her community, like so many around the world, has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Hernandez’s brother Ruben Meraz died from COVID-19 in January. His photo is at the top of the altar, with the rest of the family members she’s honoring this year.

“When you see the faces of loved ones along with other peoples’ faces, you see you’re not alone,” she says. “When you see them altogether it’s not so sad.”

She has another altar inside, where she’ll pay tribute to her grandparents by leaving an offering of their favorite foods: enchiladas and stuffed peppers.

Neighbors have been streaming through to see the altar — a welcome change from last year, when lockdown measures and the lack of a vaccine meant most people kept their Day of the Dead celebrations small.

That was the case at the nearby National Museum of Mexican Art, which went virtual for last year’s exhibit. This year they’re open again, and mask-wearing crowds are filing through to see Day of the Dead art installations from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Curator Cesáreo Moreno says the break gave visitors a new perspective.

“People are walking in after having spent the last two years living closer to death, experiencing death all around, and I think people are coming in this time and really understanding the exhibition in a new way,” he says. “Probably more the way it’s intended to be back in Mexico.”

Day of the Dead can be a solemn time but also an occasion to share joyful memories of loved ones.

“By telling their stories, we include them in the family,” Moreno says. “In Mexico, we know that one day they’re going to be talking about us, and telling our stories, and saying our names. And so there’s something peaceful about it, and normal, where life and death are seen as one and not in opposition to each other.

That sentiment is on full display at a festival behind the museum on Saturday night.

Argelia González is remembering her father, a competitive cyclist who died of cancer last year.

“His name was Edilberto González. ‘El siempre guapo Edilberto Gonzalez’ is what they called him — ‘the always good-looking, the always handsome,’ ” she says. “That was his nickname when he was a cyclist.”

González has draped a garland of marigolds around the altar, which is full of pictures of her father.

“It’s really special, especially because this is our first time setting one up and it’s for my dad,” she says. “Every year we see that it grows.”

González says she’s glad she can remember her father this way — surrounded by her friends and neighbors once again.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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