BERWYN – During this time of the year, Alex Velazquez Brightbill builds an altar above her mantle inside the living room of her Berwyn home to celebrate her late grandmother, Romanita. A plate of mole poblano, a hearty Mexican dish served with rice, and a bottle of Coke, her favorite drink, are placed beside photographs of Romanita. A trail of candles outline the rest of Brightbill’s makeshift altar.
For Brightbill, Día de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead – is all about honoring her Mexican culture and paying tribute to her loved ones who have passed away. Brightbill and many others believe that the souls of the dead return to visit their families, which is why they build altars inside their homes or around gravesites. It is customary to leave food and drink as ofrendas, or offerings, and personal belongings in remembrance of deceased relatives.
Because Romanita loved to crochet, Brightbill decorates her altar with a handful of sewn pieces.
Brightbill said she also can’t forget to leave some pan de muerto, a type of sweet bread typically baked and served leading up to the holiday, which is observed from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.
“My grandmother passed away five years ago, and you know, every time I start getting ready to put her altar, I think about what kind of food she loved and what I learned from her,” Brightbill said, as she reflected on her childhood, some of which was spent in Mexico City alongside Romanita. “It makes me grow, you know, to be a part of that tradition.”
In an effort to share these fond memories with her community, Brightbill is one of 11 local artists who has partnered with the Berwyn Public Art Initiative for its inaugural Día de los Muertos en Berwyn.
The extravaganza begins Oct. 17 with an arts and crafts lesson on papel picado, a traditional Mexican garland, and ends Nov. 1 with a procesión de Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead procession), which includes a live performance by the Calpulli Ocelotl-Cihuacoatl Dance Company followed by a parade of floats.
Norman Alexandroff, president of the art initiative, shared why it is important to host a cultural showcase like this. It is about representation, about recognizing the residents who live in Berwyn, he said.
When Berwyn was founded in the 1800s, most of its residents were of European descent. One part of the city was nicknamed “Swedetown,” as a way to highlight community members who were Swedish immigrants. The annual Houby Festival, which is held in early October, is an example of how the city spotlights its Czech and Bohemian community.
But in recent years, Berwyn’s Latino population has grown, and “we thought that the best way to engage this community and the cultural life of the city is to create a signature Día de los Muertos event,” Alexandroff said. Though Día de los Muertos originated in Mexico, it is also celebrated in other parts of Central and South America.
Aside from teaming up with artists, Alexandroff and Jessica Ramos, event project manager, turned to school districts, businesses and organizations to curate Día de los Muertos. For starters, the Berwyn Public Library and Youth Crossroads are the host sites for workshops where families can learn to make marionetas de calavera (skull puppets) and calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls) for their altars.
As for Nov. 1, the day of the procession, some of the restaurants and bars along the historic Depot District are part of the art walk, featuring more decor to highlight Día de los Muertos, Alexandroff said. On the same day, attendees are invited to the Bounce Sportsplex on Grove Avenue for a youth art exhibition and performance by students from Berwyn North School District 98, Berwyn South School District 100 and Morton West High School.
That aspect of the multi-day event excites Alexandroff, Brightbill and fellow artist Naomi Martinez. It’s a chance for children, teens and young adults to learn more about their families’ story and culture. Unlike Brightbill, Martinez was introduced to Día de los Muertos as a teenager.
A daughter of Mexican immigrants, Martinez said her father didn’t open up about his past when she was growing up.
“Trying to raise a family and trying to navigate his way in a new country, it was hard for him,” she said, noting her father was not ashamed of being Mexican, but he had other priorities.
With that, Martinez looks to Día de los Muertos en Berwyn as an eye-opener, a bridge to end a generational gap.
“It’s important to expose our kids to this culture that is so much a part of them and their ancestors,” she added of how crucial it is for parents and grandparents to tell those stories and pass down those traditions.
And to have this celebration in the heart of Berwyn brings in hope for what could become a newfound tradition.
“To create an opportunity for people to come into the public square and recognize and honor their family members, it is a really incredible celebration,” Alexandroff said.
A Guide to Día de los Muertos en Berwyn
What: Artist workshop on Mexican garland art
When: 6:30 to 8:30 pm. Oct. 17
Where: Berwyn Public Library, 2701 S. Harlem Ave.
What: Artist workshop on sugar skulls
When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 23
Where: Berwyn Public Library, 2701 S. Harlem Ave.
What: Artist workshop on skull puppets
When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 24
Where: Youth Crossroads, 6501 Stanley Ave.
What: Day of the Dead Procession
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 1