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Day of the Dead comes alive through color and celebration

By: Maria Allard | C&G Newspapers | Published October 23, 2019

 Lupe Zepeda creates a flower for an altar at a past Day of the Dead event at Macomb Community College’s Center Campus in Clinton Township.

Lupe Zepeda creates a flower for an altar at a past Day of the Dead event at Macomb Community College’s Center Campus in Clinton Township.

File photo by Deb Jacques

 At this year’s “Ofrendas: Celebrating el Día de Muertos” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, an altar created by Patricia Pfaendtner, of Macomb Township, tells the story of family member Christopher Pfaendtner.

At this year’s “Ofrendas: Celebrating el Día de Muertos” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, an altar created by Patricia Pfaendtner, of Macomb Township, tells the story of family member Christopher Pfaendtner.

Photo by Maria Allard

METRO DETROIT — Hope, sadness, love and loss.

Those are among the feelings that come up when viewing a Day of the Dead ofrenda that paints a picture of a loved one who has died.

An ofrenda is an altar that is displayed Nov. 1-2 — and sometimes Oct. 31 — to observe the Day of the Dead holiday, or Día de los Muertos in Spanish. It coincides with the Catholic observances of All Saints Day Nov. 1 and All Souls Day Nov. 2.

Generally celebrated in Mexico, with variations observed in other Latin American countries and different parts of the world, Day of the Dead celebrates the lives of the deceased through decorative altars that range from simple trimmings to elaborate décor.

Each altar tells a story of the departed. Many have a celebratory vibe, while others are made with a somber tone. In recent years, Day of the Dead has become more popular in the U.S.

“It’s slowly becoming a part of our customs,” said Peggy DiMercurio, an education coordinator for the Anton Art Center in Mount Clemens. “It’s not a scary holiday. It’s designed to be a celebration of life and a connection to family that have passed on to the other plane.”

DiMercurio will present an altar-making workshop at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 2 at the Lorenzo Cultural Center on the Center Campus of Macomb Community College, 44575 Garfield Road in Clinton Township. The event is free to attend, but all must register in advance at (586) 445-7348 or at to ensure there are enough supplies for everyone.

“We will be providing information about building the altar; we’ll have a talk (about the) Day of the Dead holiday and all the symbolism,” DiMercurio said. “We will put together a second altar with everyone, so they will do mini-altars at their spots.”

Participants are asked to bring a photo of a loved one, some of their favorite items and a food item or drink. DiMercurio said an altar could represent one person or many people. People set up a table and build upon that.

There are several traditional items that embellish an altar, including sugar skulls, candles, water, tissue paper with detailed cuts, and flowers — real, silk or paper. Vivid colors are part of creating the ideal ofrenda.

“Red represents blood and the life of a person. Yellow represents sun and unity. White represents the spirit, purity and hope,” DiMercurio said. “Pink represents happiness. Purple does represent our mourning and grief.”

Marigold flowers, too, are a customary part of building an altar.

“The marigolds are designed to help lead the way of the souls to your ofrendas,” DiMercurio said. “Marigolds guide the spirits of the loved ones to the celebration.”

Sugar skulls are a must for every altar. According to DiMercurio’s research, the sugar skulls were originally spun from real sugar.

“The holiday started in very religious, but not affluent, areas where sugar was one of the things people could use from all economic backgrounds,” DiMercurio said. “In my research on sugar skulls, immigrants from Italy working with sugar had techniques and artistry they brought over when they came to Mexico.”

As per tradition, water and food also beautify the ofrendas.

“It’s a belief on those days the souls can eat and drink many different foods and drinks,” DiMercurio said. “We put them on the altars for them to enjoy.”

Favorite recipes, books, clothing, photos, stuffed animals, dolls, instruments, Christmas lights and an empty liquor bottle can be among the many personal items that remember a loved one. DiMercurio said altars can be made quickly or can be planned by gathering items in advance.

“I know the celebrations in Mexico, people prepare all year,” DiMercurio said. “The celebrations include bands at cemeteries and picnicking at cemeteries. It can be a full-blown, two-day event or just a simple gathering.”

‘You help grieve and celebrate people’s lives’    
The Detroit Institute of Arts, in collaboration with the Mexican Consulate of Detroit, will exhibit 16 ofrenda altars created by primarily local artists in “Ofrendas: Celebrating el Día de Muertos” until Nov. 10. The altars range from 4 feet to 8 feet tall.

One altar featuring a stethoscope, MRI images, personal photos and a doctor coat illustrates the life of Christopher Pfaendtner, an emergency room doctor who was known as being a “brilliant, compassionate, caring and humble” human being.

The “good man and healer” is one of many individuals remembered at the DIA. Pfaendtner’s family member, Patricia Pfaendtner, of Macomb Township, created the arrangement.

DIA Family Programs Coordinator Emily Bowyer organized the museum’s Day of the Dead exhibit. Bowyer believes the holiday is becoming more popular in the U.S. because of its family connections and the universal need to process loss.

“The holiday is so colorful and joyous, and our neighbors with ties to Mexico are so willing to share their traditions,” she said in an email. “It is easy to see why one would want to participate.”

As for the ornate sugar skulls, Bowyer said a person’s name is often written across the forehead of the skull. She also said pan de muerto, a sweet bread, is placed on the altars, as are skeletons “in joyous poses, like dancing or playing music,” popularized by artist José Guadalupe Posada.

As of Oct. 6, more than 10,000 visitors had passed through the exhibit, according to Bowyer. Several altars represent those who have died immigrating to the U.S.

“While in the galleries, I have overheard many comments that speak to the emotional power of some of these pieces,” Bowyer said. “Visitors often make connections and begin talking about people in their own lives. I, personally, have been moved by the many altars honoring those who have lost their lives while immigrating.”

A booklet describes each altar with information provided in both English and Spanish by the artist. One artist, Mario Alberto Martinez Mendez, of Royal Oak, created the ofrenda “Courage” to honor “the millions of refugees displaced by persecution, conflict, human rights violations.” According to the booklet, “Courage” represents all the dangers that refugees and immigrants face on their quest for a better life.

Grosse Pointe Woods resident Karen Dybis and the Delray Children’s Art Collective, based in Detroit, built “Through a Child’s Eyes: The Dead of Detroit’s Delray.” According to the group, Delray is a disappearing Detroit neighborhood and the children, ages 6-14, use art to tell their personal stories.

Another altar, “Respect for Human Dignity: 43 Reasons,” was made by Madonna University students in Livonia. Their piece represents 43 Mexican students who went missing from Ayotzinapa, a teachers college in Iguala, Mexico. The story touched the Madonna students, who felt a connection to the students.

“Since items on an altar are as varied as the people they are honoring, I don’t think anything can really be unusual; however, I quite like the train seen in ‘Refugee Ancestors: Descendants United in Friendship,’ by Janet Kee Min, Cecilia Garcia-Linz and Everly Yankee,” Bowyer said. “It’s representative of all three of their ancestors’ journeys to the United States. One could also consider the many alebrijes — colorful sculptures of fantastic beasts often comprised of parts of different animals — unusual, although they have become a standard element of an ofrenda since papier-mâché artist Pedro Linares first debuted them in the 1930s.”

Pam Sutherland and her daughter, Lauren Sutherland, both of Royal Oak, and their friend Margaret Bicek, visiting from Minneapolis, were impressed with the ofrendas exhibit when they visited the DIA Oct. 12.

“I expected just to see paintings, but they’re really interactive,” Pam Sutherland, 62, said. “You help grieve and celebrate people’s lives.”

“I think they are very powerful. I didn’t expect it,” 29-year-old Lauren Sutherland said. “When you’re reading the stories of people who passed away, you’re connecting with the people. You could feel their personalities.”

“You’re feeling the memory of the people from a powerful place,” Bicek said, adding that she felt as if those who made the altars didn’t want others “to forget these people we love.”

On Nov. 10, the last day of the exhibit, the DIA will hold “Ofrenda Artist Talk: Celebrating el Dia de Muertos” at 2 p.m. The artists behind the altars for the DIA display will discuss the meaning and inspiration behind their work. In addition, the Mexican Consulate will provide a brief exploration of the history of the holiday.

The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward Ave. in Detroit. For more information, visit or call (313) 833-7900.

Celebrate Day of the Dead

Macomb Community College
Macomb Community College will host several Day of the Dead events. Activities will be held at the Lorenzo Cultural Center on the college’s Center Campus, at 44575 Garfield Road in Clinton Township. All MCC events are free and open to the public, but pre-registration is requested for the presentations and workshops. No registration is required for the exhibit. To register or for more information, call (586) 445-7348 or visit

• “Black Velvet Art: A Rasquache Aesthetic” will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 25, and Oct. 29 through Nov. 1. The exhibit demonstrates borderless geography, class and privilege, and popular culture through a range of styles on black velvet. The collection is co-curated by Diana Rivera, Chicanx Latinx subject specialist and head of the Michigan State University Library’s Cesar E. Chavez Collection; Elena Herrada, founder of Fronteras Norteñas and co-founder of Museo del Norte; and Minerva T. Martinez, co-curator of the Images of the Revolution photography collection.

• “Syncretism of Catholic and Aztec Religious Beliefs and Customs” will be offered at 11 a.m. Oct. 31. MCC humanities professor Jason Messana will explore the blending of religious beliefs and customs in the Catholic religion and Aztec culture.

• Visitors can attend “Understanding Velvet Art” at 2 p.m. Oct. 31. Exhibit co-curator Diana Rivera will present the history and significance of black velvet art and its place in our culture.

• The movie “Coco” will be shown at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 1. The 2017 computer-animated fantasy film, produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures, focuses on a Dia de los Muertos festival and highlights the story of one young boy’s personal experience.

• A presentation on Cesar Chavez will be held at 2 p.m. Nov. 1. Detroit community activist Elena Herrada will discuss the life of the Latino labor leader and civil rights activist.

• An altar-making workshop, led by Peggy DiMercurio of the Anton Art Center in Mount Clemens, will be held at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 2. Participants will learn the tradition of creating an ofrenda.

• El Ballet Forklórico Estudianti, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Mexican culture through dance, music and education, will present its mariachi band performing traditional Mexican music at 2 p.m. Nov. 2.


Macomb County Family Resource Center
The community is invited to a Day of the Dead Fiesta from 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Macomb County Family Resource Center, 196 N. Rose St. in Mount Clemens. The celebration includes food, vendors, displays and entertainment.

The event is free of charge, but tickets are required. For tickets, visit and type in Day of the Dead. The last day for tickets is Oct. 25.


Detroit Institute of Arts
The Detroit Institute of Arts will offer a number of Day of the Dead events the public is welcome to enjoy.

A sugar skull drop-in art-making workshop will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 25, and from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 26-27.

Dance performances by Ballet Folklórico de Detroit are scheduled at 2 p.m. Oct. 26 and 27.

All programs are free with museum admission. General admission (excludes ticketed exhibitions) is free for Macomb, Oakland and Wayne county residents and DIA members. For all others, the cost is $14 for adults, $9 for seniors ages 62-plus, $8 for college students, and $6 for kids ages 6-17.

The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward Ave. in Detroit. For more information, visit or call (313) 833-7900.