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Stateside Podcast: Michiganders celebrate Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a time for families to come together to honor their loved ones, often with elaborate ofrendas. The holiday originated in Mexico, but is celebrated around Latin America, and by those of Latin American descent around the world.

In the eyes of social activist, artist, and cultural ambassador Reyna Garcia, Día de los Muertos is something to be appreciated by all. She has been educating folks in the Grand Rapids area on the holiday and its traditions for years.

"I think it's good that people want to participate in it. It's great if they want to take on this tradition. They should just know the history, but I think it's great if they want to join in on our tradition," said Garcia.

For the ninth year in a row, the Detroit Institute of Arts is displaying ofrendas from local families of various backgrounds.

Ofrendas are altars that contain photographs and other memories of loved ones, as well as flowers, candy skulls and other decorations. This year’s ofrendas at the DIA included paintings, ultrasound photos, and broken glass windows.

“[The ofrenda] is something that is more often seen in homes and they, you know, tend to be smaller, sometimes a little less elaborate and family homes because obviously people don't always have the space, but they're about immediate family members or extended family members,” said Detroit News reporter Kim Kozlowski, who created one of the ofrendas on display at the museum.

While death is often a difficult topic to grapple with, Garcia explained that the holiday is not just about grief or sadness.

"There’s a lot of happiness because you know that your loved ones are coming back to be with you," she said. "There’s a lot that goes into the altar and preparing their favorite foods, we remember them by playing their favorite music. It’s not about sadness, it’s about celebrating their return. It’s a sacred tradition with lots and lots of joy.”

Garcia has created three ofrendas for the Grand Rapids Public Library this year, each with a different theme. One honors community members lost to COVID-19.

Two skeletons--one dressed in a tuxedo and one in a pink dress with blue stars--stand on either side of a colorfol ofrenda display set up in the Grand Rapids Public Library
Courtesy of Reyna Garcia
Reyna Garcia created three ofrendas to display in Grand Rapids Public Library branches this year.

For Kozlowski, the process of putting up an ofrenda around the time of Día de los Muertos is a way for her to honor her mother, who passed away nine years ago. Her altar features family heirlooms and other objects to memorialize friends and family who left this earth, as well as those who never made it in the first place.

“There's also a picture on there—it's an ultrasound picture. It's actually my own ultrasound of a child that never made it. It was a miscarriage of mine. And it's also representational of two children that my grandparents had and never made it as well. And these are things that we don't always talk about in terms of family,” she explained.

Kozlowski is not the only one to approach tough topics head on with their ofrenda exhibition. Mental health counselor Sarah Nasser participated in last year’s exhibition with an ofrenda honoring George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black lives lost to police killings. This year, Nasser’s ofrenda focused on her Lebanese heritage.

“My ofrenda this year, which is called Rise of Beirut, is about representation and visibility. So as I mentioned earlier, with Black and brown lives, our deaths often become overlooked. And in a space such as an art museum, where many of the pieces are created by European men, there's something kind of powerful to have someone who looks like me being honored in this space and having someone who may have grown up similarly to me have their story being told,” said Nasser.

Though Sarah Nasser has a Lebanese background and did not grow up celebrating Día de los Muertos, she said that the process allowed her to remember lives lost and use her platform to educate others on deaths that go overlooked by the media.

“The ofrendas have actually kind of helped me to move outside of mourning and a little bit more into celebration and that positive remembrance,” said Nasser. “But it's also kind of helped me to view the sacrifices that were made in order for me to be here, to have this platform, to have the education that I have and to kind of continue forward. So it's a helpful reminder that I'm here for a purpose.”

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Anna joined Stateside as an assistant producer in August 2021. She is a recent graduate of Michigan State University's School of Journalism and previously worked for The State News as an intern and student government reporter.
April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.