‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Resurrection in Pilsen

Pilsen, a largely Mexican community just southwest of Chicago’s Loop, is coming together to celebrate Día de los Muertos, an important day throughout Latin America.

Día de Los Muertos may seem like a sad day, but it’s the complete opposite. It’s a celebration of people’s lives. It’s a time where people come together to remember their loved ones. It’s a celebration of death and life filled with colorful traditions.

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A Pilsen resident took it upon herself to create a tall altar to honor those who have passed in the community.

“You want to be remembered, not forgotten,” Hernandez said. “Not because someone died they’re gone forever, so realize that. That death is part of life.” 

The tribute is filled with favorite items and foods of those who have died and is a tradition that marks the beginning of a two-day celebration observed on Nov. 1-2.

Altars, also known as “ofrendas” in Spanish, are decorated with sugar skulls, marigold flowers and sweet bread — all which are believed to guide the spirits to the altar to be welcomed by their loved ones.

The National Museum of Mexican Art has been celebrating through a Day of the Dead Exhibition running from Sept. 12 through Dec. 12.

Cesáreo Moreno, Director of Visual Arts and Chief Curator at the National Museum of Mexican Art, believes the U.S. is embracing this tradition like never before.

“It is now so marketable whether it's Walmart or Target,” Moreno said. “You name it ... U.S. apprehension is now waning.”

He hopes people walk away with a true understanding of Day of the Dead.

“Unlike Halloween, which is a lot of fun, Day of the Dead is a celebration of life, a very spiritual time. It's a time for remembering and it's a time for healing and it's a time for grieving,” Moreno said. “It’s a celebration of Mexico that includes the bittersweet moments of being human, of letting go, but remembering with nostalgia the times we had together.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Cesáreo Moreno

Julio Cesar Velasquez, the owner of Escaramuza USA in Pilsen, has hundreds of Mexican arts and crafts from all over Mexico. It’s a one-stop-shop for finding items for Day of the Dead celebrations.

“These are some of my favorite ones because we set them up on a table waiting for the kids,” Velasquez said of the sugar skulls. “Whoever passes as a little kid you offer them one of these. It’s meaningful for me ... also the marigold flower which has a specific smell that you don’t forget. It really does help you remember the holiday.”

Velasquez took over this store five years ago and says he’s taken what he’s learned from his late father and brother to keep his culture and traditions alive as the neighborhood changes.

“When someone has never celebrated Day of the Dead, and they ask me about it, I feel very proud of being able to transform my culture and teach them about who I am and what the store represents. It is not only the product that we sell, but the culture,” Velasquez said.

An ofrenda in memory of 13-year-old Adam Toledo who was fatally shot by Chicago police earlier this year. (WTTW News)An ofrenda in memory of 13-year-old Adam Toledo who was fatally shot by Chicago police earlier this year. (WTTW News)

Just two stores down, Artemio Casas, baker and manager at Panaderia Nuevo Leon, has been preparing special bread for the holiday.

“We start preparing the bread in the beginning of October when people start asking for it,” Casas said.

The bakery has been a staple in the Pilsen community for 49 years, and every year they make more than 3,000 pieces of Day of the Dead bread.

Casas starts by measuring all his ingredients to get ready to mix them all together. “It excites me because it's special bread and we do it once a year. For me, it’s really beautiful,” Casas said.

After the dough is ready he starts to mold it in different sizes.  “Many use the small size symbolizing little kids and the bigger size for adults,” Casas said.

He sets the bread to cool for two hours in a refrigerator and then it’s ready to decorate with colored sugar and bake in the oven for about 45 minutes.

He says this year they’ve had to reduce the production of bread in half because of a lack of workers. Despite the obstacles, Casas says it makes him happy to see customers come in wanting to take part in the holiday. 

Pilsen, a largely Mexican community just southwest of Chicago’s Loop, is coming together to celebrate Día de los Muertos, an important day throughout Latin America. (WTTW News)Pilsen, a largely Mexican community just southwest of Chicago’s Loop, is coming together to celebrate Día de los Muertos, an important day throughout Latin America. (WTTW News)

In addition to facing a worker shortage, like many other Chicago neighborhoods, Pilsen continues to battle gentrification and displacement. Guacolda Reyes, The Resurrection Project’s chief real estate development officer, says the fight started 31 years ago.

“We are resilient,” Reyes said of the Pilsen community. “I can say that the fight is stronger and we are working very closely with our community, with our residents, but also with the alderman. We share the vision of developing 1,000 new units of affordable rental housing for the Pilsen community.”

Construction for their newest affordable housing development, Casa Durango at 1850 Racine and 2002-2008 S. Ashland Ave, started earlier this week. Residents are expected to be able to move in by Fall of 2022.

According to Reyes, it’s going to have a total of 53 affordable housing units within 37 apartments with 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units.

“Rents are going to be affordable for families earning up to 30% EMI, 50% EMI and the highest rent is going to be 60% EMI,” Reyes added.

Video: Watch our full interview with Guacolda Reyes

Father Adan Sandoval has been preparing for months to throw a two-day Day of the Dead event where people will be able to decorate mock tombs outside of St. Procopius Catholic Church.

“For our community, they might not have the chance to celebrate it during the past year because of COVID or some of the parishioners have relatives in Mexico or in Central America, so for them having a little space where they come together as family to decorate and celebrate in a tomb is a wonderful thing,” Sandoval said.

This is the second year St. Procopius Catholic Church is transforming its outdoor space into a cemetery. Locals are given a place to honor their loved ones and remember them with the community.

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

“It’s a moment of prayer,” Sandoval said. “You see people laughing, crying, and coming together. I see it as a spiritual experience.”

With hundreds of Chicagoans lost to the coronavirus, Sandoval says this year’s festivities feel different.

“I do believe that life changed and death also,” Sandoval said. “We’ve all experienced death so close to us this past year, so celebrating death this year brings a different tone.”

The free event will take place outside St Procopius Catholic Church on Saturday and Sunday from 12-9 p.m. There will be food, activities and even an Aztec-inspired performance.

Also this weekend, the National Museum of Mexican Art will host a Día de los Muertos Xicágo festival starting at 3 p.m. on Saturday. Guests can build altars, enjoy live musical performances, art activities, and a large illuminated ofrenda projected outside of the museum.

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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