PILSEN — For more than a decade, Carmen Ortiz has set up an ofrenda on the sidewalk outside of her home on Morgan Street in Pilsen for Dia de los Muertos.
It all started with one altar. But today, her elaborate display — filled with ceramic skulls, candles, photos and mementos of more than 75 people who have died — fills three tables on Morgan between 19th Street and Cullerton. It’s a tradition Ortiz, 78, upholds religiously to keep the memories of those who have passed alive.
“To remember our dead means they still live inside us,” Ortiz said.
Day of the Dead, the annual Mexican tradition that honors the deceased, began on Halloween and ended Saturday. The days coincide with the Catholic holidays All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, but the holiday was born from ancient Aztec traditions.
Ahead of the annual Dia de los Muertos community processional that passes in front of her home, Ortiz and her daughter spent the morning and afternoon laying sábanas — colorful sheets — and arranging photos and other items. Sandwiched in between a loved one’s hat and newspaper clippings, were the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks: tamales, mole, enchiladas, carnitas, chili, pan de muerto, french fries and Modelo beer.
“I try to put out everything they liked,” Ortiz said in Spanish.
When she started, Ortiz’s first altar honored her grandparents, parents and siblings who had passed away. Today the tables feature photos of not only her family members, but of her friends and neighbors who have died, too.
As she watched the Muertos de la Risa processional from the steps in front of Ortiz’s home, neighbors stepped off the streets to give her a hug and snap a photo with her.
She hopes the sidewalk altars are a tradition that future generations keep alive in Pilsen long after she is gone.
“To put them on our altars, we keep their memory alive forever,” she said. “When we stop remembering them, that’s the day they will die forever.”
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.