Mexican ancestors, others remembered at DIA's Day of the Dead exhibit

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Near the end of the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, politics and economics prompted Manuel Luna Herrera and Norberta Herrera Ynigue to leave the rancho in Mexico where their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years.

The couple, my maternal grandparents, immigrated to Texas with their first two children before making their new homestead in Detroit in 1926. They had 10 more children before they died young in the 1940s, orphaning their brood. My mother, Julia Luna Kozlowski, was the youngest, and was 9 years old.

Detroit News reporter Kim Kozlowski poses for a portrait with her ofrenda “Danse Macabre” at the “Ofrendas: Celebrating el Día de Muertos” exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

But the family survived, and thrived. A century after the Luna family came to Detroit, their lives are being celebrated in the hallowed halls of the Detroit Institute of Arts on a Day of the Dead altar that I created to honor dozens of people in mi familia who lived and loved in Detroit, but are no longer with us.  

My altar, or ofrenda, is among 11 other ofrendas that are on display starting Saturday at the DIA’s 9th annual community exhibition celebrating the Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos.

"We should honor our loved ones because they are part of our heritage and a statement of love that we will never forget them, and they will always be our hearts," said Theresa Verdusco, one of my cousins who lived in Centerline.

Sara Nasser poses for a portrait with her ofrenda “Rise, Oh Beirut!” at the “Ofrendas: Celebrating el Día de Muertos” exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The DIA’s popular ofrenda exhibition, a collaboration with the Mexican Consulate of Detroit and the Southwest Detroit Business Association, is aimed at connecting the traditions of the Mexican-American community with others in the community, and celebrating the dead.

“We hope that folks who come through and maybe aren’t familiar with Day of the Dead can get an understanding of the tradition, and they can also reflect how they honor and remember their loved ones who have passed,” said Emily Bowyer, DIA Family Program Coordinator. 

Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition, celebrated annually on Nov. 1 and 2 in Mexico, other Latin American countries and the U.S. to honor family, friends and other loved ones who have died. At the heart of the celebration is the ofrenda altar, which includes pictures of loved ones and other symbols such as candlelight to help guide loved ones back.

Dinak Padres, Marlene del Angel, Paulina Rodriguez, Erika Gonzalez, Cecilia Bolton Delgado, Siret Alvarez, Patricia Pineda and Silvia Quezada’s ofrenda “Pioneer Women who Changed the World” is pictured at the 9th annual community exhibition, “Ofrendas: Celebrating el Día de Muertos” at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit on Sept. 21, 2021.

“It is probably one of the most beautiful celebrations because of how colorful it is and not forgetting those you loved and left before you,” said painter Coco Sweezy, one of the artists who is displaying an ofrenda honoring her parents, her roots and Mexican cultural artifacts.

Sweezy, who grew up in Mexico City, remembers her mom taking her to the cemetery and telling her stories about family members she didn’t even know. Everyone in Mexico is celebrates their loved ones who have passed. Some towns even shut down, their streets not even visible because they are covered with orange and yellow marigolds, known as the flower of the dead.

Gloria Rosas Baiocco with the Southwest Detroit Business Association’s ofrenda “Culture, Tradition, Community” at the 9th annual community exhibition, “Ofrendas: Celebrating el Día de Muertos” at the DIA.

“If you visit Mexico during those days, it’s impossible to miss it because it’s everywhere,” said Sweezy.

The DIA began its annual Day of the Dead exhibit with a two-day show but it has since grown to be a six-week show. This year, it closes Nov. 7. Patrons need to make reservations to enter during the pandemic.

Some  of the ofrendas make political statements. Dearborn resident Sara Nasser’s ofrenda remembers the hundreds of men and women who were killed in the 2020 Beirut explosion. It also honors her paternal grandmother, who was killed by a sniper during the Lebanon Civil War.

"We have quite corrupt government that refuses to investigate what happened,” said Nasser, who was born in Lebanon. "My ofrenda is dedicated to those who lost their lives due to a corrupt government that never seems to put their citizens first."

My ofrenda celebrates the genealogy of my maternal grandparents and collides it with the Middle Age allegory of Danse Macabre and ancient traditions of Dia de los Muertos.

The genesis of it began nearly ten year ago after my mother succumbed to a long battle with dementia in 2012. I put up a small ofrenda in my home to celebrate her during the Day of the Dead season.

My annual ceremony grew when my father, Ron Kozlowski, died in 2016 and catalpulted earlier this year when a spectacular mural, “Gypsy Dancer,” painted by my Uncle Raul Garcia, led to my discovering a long-lost half-sister, Lori Walczak Mayack.  My family and I went on an epic genealogy trip in early summer to my mom’s family’s ancestral homeland of Aguajes de Abajo, a town located in the Mexico state of Zacatecas, northwest of Mexico City.

In June, three carloads of mostly Detroiters arrived in search of the Luna homestead where our grandparents had left more than a century ago.

We hiked dirt paths to get to one of the homesteads. One of my cousins recollected the parties that were held on the patio that included a lot of dancing.

After traveling nearly 2,000 miles from Detroit to connect with our ancestors on the land where they lived for so long, we all danced too.

Ofrendas: Celebrating el Día de Muertos 

Saturday-Nov. 8

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward

Patrons need to make reservations to enter during the pandemic.