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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014

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The Milwaukee Ofrenda honors 30 deceased Milwaukeeans and is a part of the Dia de los Muertos exhibit.
The Milwaukee Ofrenda honors 30 deceased Milwaukeeans and is a part of the Dia de los Muertos exhibit.

Celebrating life through honoring the dead

The 20th annual Día de los Muertos show opens this Friday, in conjunction with Gallery Night, at the Walker's Point Center for the Arts, 839 S. 5th St., from 5 to 9 p.m. The exhibit will remain up until Saturday, Nov. 17.

The show features more than a dozen unique ofrendas (altars) in addition to sculpture and 2-D work related to Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) which are built by Milwaukee artists and community members to honor deceased loved ones.

Día de los Muertos recognizes death as a celebration of life and reminds people to reflect on what they value through the commemoration of loved ones.

Traditionally, the ofrendas are built for All Saints Day, Nov. 1-2. The belief is that the spirits of passed loved ones are most likely to visit during this time. To entice them back to the material world, the ofrendas are decorated with their favorite foods and drinks, along with pictures, mementos, marigolds / flowers, skulls and skull figures.

Jose Alfredo Chavez, originally from the state of Michoacan in Mexico, has been involved with the show since it began, and has been the curator for the past three years. Chavez is a self-taught painter, sculptor, print maker, photographer and videographer. He also holds a masters degree in business.

"Back in Mexico we always celebrated Día de los Muertos and I wanted to pass this on to my daughters. The purpose of the ofrendas is to honor the memory of those loved ones that went ahead of us," he says.

Chavez is also teaching a sugar skull decorating demonstration on Saturday, Nov. 3 from 1 to 2 p.m. at WPCA.

This year's ofrenda builders include Jeanette Arellano, Melanie Ariens, Kate Bradley, Georgina Campbell, Celeste Contreras, Xela Garcia, Claudia Guzman, Diego Heredia, Ava Hernandez, JoAnn Jensen, Tami Langowski, Dara Larson, Lona Long, Janice Mahlberg, Pam Miller, Jill Moore, Claire Ruzicka, Mary Smith, Llysa Spencer, Sue Vliet, Leanna Wooten and myself, along with my partner, Royal Brevväxling.

This is the first time I've created a public ofrenda. I have built them in my home for many years, but decided this year to do it on a larger scale in order to honor deceased Milwaukeeans along with a few loved-but-defunct Brew City places.

Everything on the Milwaukee ofrenda is connected to Milwaukee. There are framed photos of 30 Milwaukeeans along with soy candles hand-poured by Brandy Glass-Lucchesi into clean El Rey salsa jars, Great Lakes Distillery's Kinnickinnic whiskey, Miller bottle vases with marigolds and Milwaukee fabric created by the talented Allison Beilke.

Among the 30 honored Milwaukeeans include former OnMilwaukee.com media columnist Tim Cuprisin, former mayor Frank Zeidler, former civil rights' activist James Groppi, former artist Mary Nohl, former art model/year-round sunbather Dick Bacon and many more.

Beloved Milwaukee places like the Sydney Hih building and the Oriental Pharmacy are also honored on the Milwaukee ofrenda.

"In Mexico this is mainly a religious celebration, but here in the United States it is meant to be inclusive due to the fact that we are such a diverse society. It does no matter what your religion is or even if you are an atheist," says Chavez.

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