Long Live the Dead

The Day of the Dead is a living holiday. Rooted in a blend of meso-American traditions and Spanish Catholic rituals, the images that are today iconic– decorated candy skulls for loved ones lost, and the ornate skeletons of the catrina— all emerged from the reflections of old ideas in new places.  They are works in progress.  We visited three Day of the Dead celebrations to see what the holiday looks like in the here and now of Chicago’s South Side.

Race for the Dead

At 8:15am on the Saturday before Day of the Dead temperatures are in the 30s and the side streets around 18th Street stand empty and still except for a few Mexican and American flags flapping in the freezing wind. The only signs of life are a heavy thumping bass and a stream of color along 18th, where over 2,000 people are running the fourth annual Race of the Dead 5K through Pilsen and University Village.

The race runs along 18th Street, east towards Halsted, north along Maxwell Street and the athletic fields of University of Illinois at Chicago, before turning to follow the murals along 16th Street. Along the way there are mariachi and folkloric musicians, dancers, DJs, and corners full of cheering supporters. Most runners wear sweatshirts and earmuffs, and for the boldest, the occasional pair of shorts, and for the very boldest, bare torsos. Probably half the runners and spectators are Latino, but the costumes make it hard to tell, especially the most popular one: faces painted solid white with black around the eyes and mouth. The runners finish where they began, at the Bartolome de las Casas Charter School at 16th and Paulina, a member of the UNO charter school network that organizes the race as a fundraiser for its extracurricular programs.

A crowd is gathered at the school. Supporters hold signs (“Tu puedes Nana!”) and neighbors watch from their stoops. The winner crosses the finish line to huge cheers in just under sixteen minutes, and for a few minutes after him serious runners come in gasping breaths of cold air. Minutes go by and the runners come in more relaxed, until many are pushing strollers or walking with small children. About a hundred yards from the finish banner, another banner reads, “THE FIESTA STARTS HERE.” Two giant puppets –a man in a blanket and sombrero and a woman in braids and a skirt–dance around the entrance to the schoolyard, where from a low stage a voice blares through the loudspeaker, “The party is just beginning–how does it feel?”

Carlos Jaramillo, the race organizer, remembers the race’s beginnings four years ago. “So many of the top races in Chicago were being held along the lakefront, on the North Side, or in the suburbs. Nothing major was ever held in what I describe as ‘the heart of Chicago.’ I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to organize your typical, run, eat some bananas, get your t-shirt, and go home type of event. I wanted to create a party, a festival.”

Inside the schoolyard, in the shadow of next-door St. Adalbert’s church, a half-block of pavement is filled with hundreds of racers and spectators. Colored streamers spill from a second story window of the school over the crowd, as lines start to form behind the folding tables where volunteers are selling cookies, Mexican bread, and steak tacos, and steaming cups of soup, coffee, and atole The music ranges from remixed Norteño polka rhythms to the Macarena. A long line of kids gathers to hit the candy out of a piñata as a shivering dog in a skeleton costume skitters between their feet. Mascots from the White Sox and the Fire work the crowd, and mayoral hopeful Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez are among the participants.

The emcee calls for any costumed runners to step on stage for a contest to be judged by audience response. After the elimination of a dozen or so superheroes, horror movie characters, and Mexican wrestlers, the final round comes down to a father-son duo dressed as Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat  against an elaborate Calavera Catrina. The emcee riffs, “Let’s hear it for death!” It’s a tie.

A group of young women who grew up in Pilsen watches from the back, and answers enthusiastically when asked why they ran. “In honor of all the loved ones we lost, however short or long their lives were, that their days were fulfilled,” says Xochitl Mayorga (“an Aztec name,” she adds). “For my grandma,” says Martha Fregoso. She laughs, “We ran with a bottle of Patrón for her, and took a few shots on the way.”

Behind them, in the center of the schoolyard, on the back of a small garage, a shrine full of offerings is set up. A black tarp is spread on the pavement, filled with small colored stones and lined on the edges with purple and white lace. Several tiers are covered with an assortment of decorated plastic skulls, paper flowers, unlit candles, bags of Doritos, and photos of Marilyn Monroe, Benito Juarez, and Frida Kahlo, among others. Runners wander over a few at a time to take photos in front of the centerpiece: a smiling skeleton wearing the long-sleeve race shirt, his arms spread out across the offerings.

Courtesy National Museum of Mexican Art


With all its ebullient lunatic excess, it seems strange that “The Corpse Bride” is inspired by anything other than Tim Burton’s own peculiar imagination. Yet visiting the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA)’s “Vida Breve” exhibition reveals that Burton in fact shanghaied his gallant skeletons and racy skeletonettes from the Mexican art created for the Day of the Dead. Indeed the innumerable leering skulls that populate the museum would probably chill even Burton to the bone.

“Vida Breve” is the self-professed alpha-exhibition for the Day of the Dead in the United States, and indeed this weekend during the celebrations, so many people filled its rooms that it seemed as though the festival must be more important to the South Side than to Mexico. “The NMMA has played a huge role in increasing awareness of the Day of the Dead in Chicago,” said Mario Hernández, tour guide for “Vida Breve.” “Because of our exhibition, new galleries everywhere have started displaying their own Day of the Dead art.” (These “galleries” are actually just restaurants or cafés like Efebina’s which display Mexican art for their customers’ pleasure, but it is true that there are now new shops which have opened around Pilsen, selling Day of the Dead sculptures and masks.)

When asked about her experience of the Day of the Dead, Elimar–the owner of one of these shops–said, “We Mexicans, we defy death,” It is this sass that fizzes in the air at the NMMA where paintings like Ester Hernández’s “If this is Death I like it” assert the festival’s motto, as summarized by Mario Hernández: “We are all going to die–why not make fun of that?” Indeed the viewer is the butt of a fair few visual jokes, funny because of their shameless morbidity. The floor of one of the gallery rooms shows a picture of a train track, which begins at the doorway and ends at the bony feet of a giant, geriatric corpse. If the viewer tries to escape death by cleverly stepping off the train track,  he or she instead approaches Artemio Rodriquez’s serigraph of a woman looking into a mirror with death reflected back at her. A child, walking resolutely down the train track, burst into tears as he lifted his face to make eye-to-eyesocket contact with his ultimate fate, causing a curator to start chuckling discreetly into his collar.

This juxtaposition of gaiety and gravity creates a tension that leaves an uninitiated viewer uncertain of how to feel. Many people cry at the exhibition, where they are faced with altars adorned with photographs of smiling twenty-somethings snatched away before their time. But at the same time, others admire the flowers of the dead–cempasúchils–which are littered all over the gallery, round and yellow like the sun, and a source of brightness for the dead. The exhibit, like the day itself, reminds the living so powerfully of death that it is unsurprising when amidst the bright paint and clay at one’s back one can hear, as the poet Andrew Marvell once wrote, “time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

by Mehves Konuk


Their knuckles blanching from clutching handlebars and picket signs, the fifty or so activists at the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) rally this past Monday made a grim bunch. Trudging nearly wordlessly through the quadrangle at the University of Illinois at Chicago, members of the cohort braced themselves for the crisp air and headed south. Noses and lips poked out from skull masks that seemed to have been made from paper plates and construction paper. Some had painted their faces–a row of squares above and below their lips formed an ominous, fleshless grin.

The skulls had congregated to voice their support for the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, which would take significant steps to regulate the city’s coal-fired power plants. The plants in question, the Crawford and Fisk plants, are supposedly linked to “40+ premature deaths per year,” according to the handouts that were being passed out to strangers on the street. This, in addition to the 2,800 asthma attacks per year and 500 emergency room visits that a Harvard study attributed to coal-fired plants, was the reason for the protesters’ odd presentation. The skull iconography was a tongue-in-cheek reference both to the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos and to the grim reality that coal power poses a monumental public health threat to the Pilsen area. One man rode a bicycle attached to a trolley upon which 40 miniature cardboard coffins had been ceremoniously pasted. As he rode, wisps of smoke from the burning incense sticks gave the event a more serious air.

After they had left campus, where representatives of Greenpeace, PERRO, and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization gave speeches that were more educational than rousing, the protesters marched and cycled down Halsted Street. Immediately, their uneasy silence was broken by a face-painted woman with a foghorn and a penchant for slogans: “Hey hey! Ho ho! These power plants have got to go!” The crowd began chanting immediately, albeit occasionally out of rhythm. One cyclist swerved cheekily into traffic as a black Toyota honked. The modest police escort had turned on its flashing blue lights, under which was written what could have been the mission statement of that modest but enthusiastic gang of skulls: “We serve and protect.”