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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

Pilsen Woman’s Elaborate Día De Los Muertos Display Is Back, Honoring The Neighborhood’s Lost Loved Ones

Isabel Hernandez suffers from chronic pain, but seeing how much neighbors love her ofrendas makes the hard work worthwhile: "Doing all of this stuff makes me stronger."

Isabel Hernandez poses with her Día de los Muertos ofrenda in her Pilsen yard on Oct. 17, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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PILSEN — Isabel Hernandez has again transformed her Pilsen yard into a massive, colorful Día de los Muertos display with ofrendas, marigolds, trees of life and more.

During the traditional Oct. 31-Nov. 2 Mexican holiday, people honor loved ones who have died by building an ofrenda, or altar, and topping it with photos and mementos to invite back their spirits. Hernandez built a 15-foot ofrenda in her yard last year and in 2020.

Hernandez said she wasn’t sure if she’d decorate her side yard on 19th Street between Throop and Loomis streets as extensively as she had in years past because it takes a significant amount of time to build and store. But when this year’s butterfly theme came to her, she had no doubt, she said.

“I decided to use butterflies because supposedly Indigenous groups thought that the souls [of loved ones] return in the form of butterflies,” Hernandez said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Isabel Hernandez’s Pilsen yard on 19th Street between Throop and Loomis streets is turned into an ofrenda, as seen on Oct. 17, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Isabel Hernandez’s Pilsen yard on 19th Street between Throop and Loomis streets is turned into an ofrenda, as seen on Oct. 17, 2022.

Last year, Hernandez printed black-and-white photos of people to represent how they were being mourned. The pictures are in color this year to show lost loved ones returning to life through the butterflies, she said.

Hernandez staged her three ofrendas and the large butterflies — which she painted herself — with photos at the four cardinal points of her yard, a significant symbol to Día de los Muertos as it represents the four stages of life, she said.

Three butterflies and ofrendas feature photos that Hernandez saved from previous years and new ones people submitted to her this year — more than 300, she said. One ofrenda is dedicated to kids and young adults, another for middle-aged people and the last one for older people. The fourth point is a decorated coffin Hernandez built herself.

Among the levels of the ofrendas are knickknacks and trinkets Hernandez has collected over the years, including catrinas and calaveras she picks up from her travels to Mexico. There are also bottles of Corona and Coca-Cola, as it’s typical to put out food and drink that loved ones enjoyed.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Isabel Hernandez’s Pilsen yard on 19th Street between Throop and Loomis streets is turned into an ofrenda, as seen on Oct. 17, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Hernandez is from Juarez, Mexico, and has lived in Pilsen for about 40 years. When she moved to the neighborhood, not many people in the historically Mexican area really celebrated the holiday — but recently, it’s gained popularity, especially as the National Museum of Mexican Art has held related activities, she previously said.

For Hernandez, celebrating the holiday is significant because it encourages people to learn about and stay connected to their ancestors.

“It’s history, it’s our history,” Hernandez said. “Just like we went to school to learn American history or whatever other history — so why not about our family? This is a celebration of the lives of the people who are not here.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Isabel Hernandez poses with her Día de los Muertos ofrenda in her Pilsen yard on Oct. 17, 2022.

Hernandez has suffered from chronic pain for more than 20 years, which can make assembling her elaborate decorations painful, she said. In the spring and summer months, Hernandez transforms her massive side yard into a gorgeous garden.

She said he pushes on because “doing all of this stuff makes me stronger.”

“And when someone appreciates you and thanks you, that’s what makes me keep doing this,” she said. “I still can do something nice for me, for the community. That’s the most important thing.”

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