September 20, 2023

Bridging the living and dead, past and future, through art

Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies to display ofrenda installation at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Students from Wayne State's Latino/a and Latin American Studies participated in the DIA’s ofrendas exhibition in 2019.
Students from Wayne State's Latino/a and Latin American Studies participated in the DIA’s ofrendas exhibition in 2019.

Artwork by Wayne State University’s Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies (CLLAS) will be featured in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition. CLLAS students, faculty, staff and alumni have collaborated to create an ofrenda — commonly referred to as altars — which have been at the core of Dia de los Muertos for centuries. The ofrenda, titled “El Fuego Se Equivoco,” which translates to “The Fire Was Mistaken,” is a tribute to those who have voiced resistance but were silenced. The installation will be on display Sept. 23 through Nov. 5.

Literally translated to “offering,” the ofrenda has roots in what is now southern Mexico, and in Guatemala, where Indigenous people would celebrate, commemorate and connect with their deceased ancestors through displays of food and drink, music, flowers and iconography.

Alicia Diaz, who is both faculty and a CLLAS alumna, led the project and said ofrendas are part of a rich tradition celebrating the ongoing communication between the living and the dead. She explained that celebrations historically took place at burial sites and in the streets of a community. However, in the United States, until the latter part of the 20th century, the practice was relegated by cultural intolerance and anti-Mexican sentiment into private homes or churches. With the rise of the Chicano Power Movement in the 1960s, Los Angeles artisans helped move ofrendas back into public spaces.

“It’s a bittersweet celebration, and without a line of separation between the secular and the spiritual, between the living and the dead, or between grief and joy. The accepted and expected notion was that ancestors lived on beyond physical death, and so they were celebrated the same colorful way as the living — with food, music, flowers and more,” said Diaz. “The ofrenda was traditionally viewed as a doorway, to bridge those fluid, permeable realms.”

Tradition turned art

Ofrendas have evolved over time as a popular art form, varying widely across the United States with nuances tied to the complexities of the various Latin American identities across the country. The DIA’s exhibit will feature 14 ofrendas, including an installation crafted by CLLAS alumna and artist Josefina Diaz. CLLAS first participated in the DIA’s ofrendas exhibition in 2019. While they vary widely and take on the identities of their respective creators and communities, Diaz said all ofrendas have one thing in common: They tell a story.

“The ofrenda has become an incredibly complex expression of Mexican, Chicano and Latinx communities, regardless of origin. But it’s clear that they resonate with everyone,” Diaz said, noting the diversity of artists and themes featured in the DIA’s annual exhibits. “One of the most moving installations that I saw last year here in Detroit was dedicated to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In 2019, during the public Q&A session hosted by the DIA with the ofrenda artists for that year, I was touched to hear the personal grieving experience of a woman in the audience who claimed no ties to the Latinx community. This is an artform for all to find meaning and healing.”

Diaz, who teaches Introduction to Latin American Studies, said the project is one of the many ways she and her colleagues at CLLAS work to help students see themselves in the American story.

“We take an approach that really empowers students to see themselves at the core of the American story, not on the periphery, not as a footnote, not as something to be thought about one day out of the month,” she said. “America is a Latinx story with origins that predate America’s Detroit story. The Latinx community here has been here for a century — you are not the ‘other.’ It’s truly a privilege to support them in that expression.”

Sending a message

CLLAS’ ofrenda, “El Fuego Se Equivoco” (“The Fire Was Mistaken”), pays tribute to artists, authors, journalists, activists and others whose voices of resistance have been silenced. It was inspired by the 1562 mass destruction of Mayan books, art and other relics by European clerics in the Yucatan peninsula in an attempt to “drive the demons” from the Indigenous peoples’ hearts. The installation’s themes of censorship and resistance draw on a grounding philosophy of the Dia de los Muertos: that death does not mean an end, and that while one’s voice may be silenced, an idea or a movement can live forever. Included are representations of silenced voices that cut across the Americas, including the Caribbean, South America, the United States, Mexico, Central America and beyond.

“For generations and across cultures, people have paid very dear prices — some of them, their lives — for refusing to remain silent,” said Diaz. “With our ofrenda, we mourn and honor them, but very much also step into the future. It’s a gateway between today, yesterday and tomorrow. It’s about drawing lessons from the past and empowering people today.”

The installation is anchored by a pair of bookcases framing an archway featuring a painted canvas and flanked by antique desks, benches, typewriters, books, records and more. The ofrenda also includes more traditional elements, including candles, marigolds, Mexican fabric, skeletons and sugar skulls.

Alondra Cruz Almestica, a junior in the College of Education and a McNair Scholar, painted the focal point of the archway’s canvas, which features a quote from internationally recognized Indigenous Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016 in response to her environmental activism.

“As someone of Puerto Rican descent, being welcomed to work in this space was an honor,” Cruz Almestica said. “The meaning of the ofrenda is touching — it's an opportunity to show the world that we remember and carry on Cáceres message.”

Members of the School of Medicine’s chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association, including Rafael Ramos, Tannia Rodriguez, Jose Lopez, Ingrid Rocha, Sophia Gandarillas and Karen Zapien, collaborated with CLLAS on the ofrenda. The group interpreted barriers to and biases within health care as a form of censorship. Their interpretation is represented by a pair of Catrina skeletons — one a mother in need and another a health care worker in scrubs.

“The DIA is such a special place for our community — especially considering the Rivera courts and the frescos,” said Ramos. “With this piece, we’re able to express the disconnect between some patients in need of care and health care professionals who want to help them.”

First-year student Diana Rodriguez, who is majoring in art in the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, led the design of a “Xolo” featured within the installation. The Xoloitzcuintli is a Mexican breed of dog that in Mexica (Aztec) tradition served as a guide dog to the underworld.

“It’s been my first experience working on an ofrenda, and being able to do so with a community of artists who will have our work displayed at the DIA has been incredible,” said Rodriguez.

To learn more about CLLAS, visit DIA is located at 5200 Woodward Avenue. Admission is free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Faculty spotlight


Matt Lockwood
Phone: 313-577-5354

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