Art and ofrendas: A day (of the dead) in Southwest

High school students from the surrounding areas of metro Detroit are shuttling into Southwest Detroit to celebrate Dia de los Muertos – Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

Every November 1 and 2 Mexico honors its ancestors through a lively, colorful celebration.

Ofrendas (offerings or shrines) are built in celebration of loved ones who have passed on. Incense dances around an altar filled with sugar skulls, candles, food and other objects the deceased might have enjoyed in their lifetime. Sometimes it’s a favorite piece of clothing. For children, relatives often leave toys.

They’re like lighthouses for the souls, there to guide them back so they can hear the prayers and well-wishes of their family and friends. The mood isn’t gloomy. It’s a joyous celebration. Some even believe the Dia de los Muertos brings them good luck.

A walk through the ofrendas and attractions, traditional Mexican faire at Los Galanes, and classes in Mexican crafts all help bring the holiday to life for students around the metro area … and open their eyes to Detroit’s cultural amenities they might not have known before.

The Southwest Business Association contacted middle and high schools around metro Detroit to give students this immersive experience. They partnered with the Matrix Theater, both a company and school in Southwest Detroit. The theater’s Puppetry Department conducted workshops on how to build puppets. They have a small staff, but are a dynamic, creative force.

Matrix Theater’s Puppetry Department’s Meranda Stewart teaches the candle painting class.

“What do you light a candle for?” she asks her class.

“To see?” one student guesses.

“Exactly!” she answers. “That’s why people decorate Day of the Dead candles… so the dead can find their way back home. When we’re decorating ours today, think about the tradition of Day of the Dead as well as your own life. Think about decorating a candle in honor of someone you know.”

Candle painting was one of the classes alongside making clay skeletons and books. Students bind the pages and decorate the hard covers with traditional Day of the Dead imagery … skeletons, flowers and other designs. This project is a nod to the papel piccado — chains of tissue paper cut into elaborate designs. “The cutting of the paper represents the fragility of life,” says the Matrix Theater’s Megan Harris, who organized the crafting part of the day’s festivities.

“It’s so nice to come here because we’re so close and some of these kids have never been to Southwest Detroit,” says Anne Sbeity, a Dearborn high school Spanish teacher who brought her students on the field trip.  “Some have never seen a Day of the Dead celebration or an altar first hand. You can teach this in the classroom, but it’s different seeing it.”


She’s taken students on the tour the last several years and plans to return in the coming years. “It means really learning how Mexicans celebrate. The understanding gives you a different view on life and death,” she says.

Ready to jump into the celebration? There will be walk-in Mexican craft classes open to all ages from 3 to 4 pm, November 2. Admission is $5 and you’ll walk away with your own painted Mexican candle. Classes are held in the big glass Mercado at 2826 Bagley in Detroit.


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