Day of the Dead: Loving tributes to family who have died on display at Pilsen museum

CHICAGO (WLS) -- She was known as Mamá Licha, even though her real name was much longer: Elisa Sarmiento de Arellano.

Mamá Licha, a long-time resident of Pilsen and later Little Village, died April 28, 2018. During this time of year, her family celebrated her life with a Day of the Dead ofrenda, or offering, that is on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art.

"If I could describe her with one word, it's love. Love for what she gave to all of us, her kids, grandkids," said Norma Torres, Mamá Licha's daughter. "She was just amazing."


"Day of the Dead, to me and my family, is a way that we celebrate life of people who are no longer with us," said Cynthia Elisa Torres, Mamá Licha's granddaughter. "Mama Licha was someone who loved her family very, very much. She showed us what unconditional love looks like. So I hope that the Day of the Dead, this tradition, can be carried on so people can experience the love we felt for our grandmother, my abuelita, Mamá Licha."


On Mamá Licha's ofrenda you will see several items that were once in her home, including her Bible. Her relatives have included personal belongings, like family pictures with her husband, children and grandchildren. The pictures show how committed she was to raising her 25 grandchildren.

"She was a caring grandmother who always put others before herself. And we miss her dearly. We made this ofrenda in her honor because she was a very special woman to us and will always be with us," Cynthia Elisa Torres said.

Mamá Licha was known as a magnificent cook, whipping up frijoles, tamales, and enchiladas. Her family has included plenty of food, including tamales, as part of her ofrenda. She would also carry a bottle of Gatorade with her.

"She had Gatorade because she didn't like drinking water," her granddaughter explained.

Her ofrenda also has Monarch butterflies, symbolizing her belief that spirits would travel as butterflies to be with her. The family experienced their own butterfly moment when they were building her ofrenda at the museum.

"When we were making this ofrenda," said Norma Torres, "bringing in supplies, a butterfly came in with us. That was very special to us. I believe it was her."

Day of the Dead is November 2. The Day of the Dead exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art runs now through December. Cesáreo Moreno, the museum's curator, said the commemoration is deeply rooted in ancient, indigenous beliefs. It's a way to remember loved ones generation to generation.

"We keep them alive through the stories we tell, and we keep them alive with the offerings on the altar," Moreno said.


In fact, this year's exhibit at the museum is dedicated to 22 people who died in the El Paso mass shooting. There are other ofrendas as well, including one made by students in Summit School District 104. Moreno said the teachers took the opportunity to educate students about the spiritual commemoration. The ofrenda made by the students honors children who lost their lives crossing the border.


All of this is a way to keep memories alive, including those for Mamá Licha's family. Even though her death has been difficult.

"Everything on there reminds me of my mom," said Norma Torres. "It's been hard to lose my mom a year and a half ago, but remembering her every day helps me heal."
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