Last weekend, Green-Wood Cemetery in Sunset Park, Brooklyn hosted a Día de Muertos celebration to honor those who have died crossing the Mexican border or were victims of Hurricane Maria. New York-based artist Adrián Viajero Román built an ofrenda, or ceremonial altar for the dead, at the cemetery.
Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a multi-day Mexican holiday meant to celebrate friends and family members who have died. One of the traditions associated with Día de Muertos is the building of ofrendas to honor the dead. Visitors to these ofrendas often leave gifts for the deceased such as foods, beverages, photographs, or even toys for children. The origins of the holiday trace back to indigenous observances, and, according to National Geographic, “originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful.” It was believed that during Día de Muertos, the dead, “kept alive in memory and spirit,” would return to Earth.
The event, which took place from November 2–4, was organized in collaboration with Bard Graduate Center (BGC) to coincide with the exhibition Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place, on view through January 6. BGC contacted the cemetery in the hopes of setting up an event on a site of cultural significance, where people would be able to memorialize the dead, said Harry Weil, the Manager of Programs at Green-Wood Cemetery. According to Weil, both the cemetery and BGC reached out to Román, a Sunset Park artist, and they worked together in “thinking about how the average viewer can be involved in the work.”
Román is of Puerto Rican descent, and according to The Art Newspaper, he has traveled to Puerto Rico every month since Hurricane Maria. As he states on his website, his “work is informed by issues of race, migration and identity while exploring both the personal and historical memory of the two disparate worlds that I inhabit: the tropical landscape of Puerto Rico and the overpopulated cityscape of New York.”
Román’s ofrenda consisted of three sections. The central panel, according to Weil, was “open for everyone to commemorate the dead.” Visitors were invited to add their own personal objects to this panel. The left panel was dedicated to migrants coming across the border to the US — migrants who have either died or gone missing, their remains never found. This panel consisted of objects donated from Colibrí Center for Human Rights — objects that included flowers with the names of migrants and items that have been discarded at the border. The ofrenda’s right panel was dedicated to victims of Hurricane Maria, with photos and objects taken and found by Román during his visits to Puerto Rico.
The weekend celebration also included a series of events, ceremonies, and performances. For instance, on Sunday, Mia Román, Adrian Román’s sister, organized a “Make Your Own Nicho” workshop. A nicho is a type of small box that can serve as its own altar. Also on Sunday, poets Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Raquel Salas Rivera, and Roberto Montes hosted “On Borders, Human Lives, and Poetry,” presenting readings with the theme of border crossing and humanity. Other events centered around themes of migration, displacement, and memory, as visitors paid their respects to the dead.
Created by artist Adrián Viajero Román, the ofrenda was at Green-Wood Cemetery from November 2–4, and it was organized in collaboration with Bard Graduate Center’s exhibition Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place (18 West 86th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan), which is on view through January 6. Agents of Faith is curated by Ittai Weinryb, Associate Professor, Bard Graduate Center, with Marianne Lamonaca, Chief Curator, and Caroline Hannah, Associate Curator, Bard Graduate Center Gallery.