PILSEN — Gardener Isabel Hernandez, whose elaborately decorated yard draws onlookers from across Chicago, has built her largest ofrenda yet for Día de los Muertos.
The holiday honors people who have died by building an altar, or ofrenda, and topping it with photos and mementos to invite back their spirts. Hernandez — known for her large and colorful garden on 19th Street between Throop and Loomis streets — built an ofrenda in her yard last year.
This year, Hernandez made the ofrenda even bigger: It’s 15 feet tall and in a more traditional pyramid shape. She made it herself.
“I thought, ‘I’m gonna try to do a pyramid of the seven levels,’ because each level represents the way you go through life from birth until you die,” Hernandez said. “And so that was my challenge.”
The pyramid was made with more than 170 plastic crates Hernandez received from a local food bank, which she tied together with cords. The seventh tier is made of a piece of wood drilled into the lower layer of crates.
Hernandez gathered photos of lost loved ones from neighbors who wanted their relative or friend included in this season’s ofrenda. She said she received about 250 submissions.
Hernandez said she wanted the community to be involved, and it makes her happy to see people come and take photos of her work.
“When I see people taking pictures, it makes my day,” Hernandez said. “It keeps me going, doing all this stuff.”
Candles, paper flowers, lanterns and knickknacks are meticulously spread out among the seven tiers of photos. Below all the photos are names identifying the person shown, sometimes with the date of their death.
“I wanted to include their names because these people were somebody; they had names,” Hernandez said.
The highest tier features Hernandez’s family; the second tier, close friends and neighbors; the third tier, prominent members of the community; the fourth tier, reserved for dogs and cats, because “pets are family,” said Hernadez, an owner of six dogs. The fifth and sixth tiers feature the photos people submitted to her.
Hernandez is from Juarez, Mexico, but has lived in Pilsen for about 40 years. She said when she moved there, not many people in the historically Mexican neighborhood really celebrated the holiday — but recently, it’s gained popularity, especially as the National Museum of Mexican Art has held related activities.
Though Hernandez said she loves the reactions and thanks she gets from the neighborhood, she said this year will be the last year she puts up an ofrenda in the yard, citing the amount of work it takes as well as the difficulty of storing all the decorations after the holiday.
But Hernandez said she still plans to showcase her garden decoration skills each year for her favorite holiday: Christmas.
Día de los Muertos is Oct. 31-Nov. 2.
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