By Irina Rusanova
In past years, an ofrenda has been set up in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages around El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, to honor the deceased and invite them to visit the community. In fall 2020, the ofrenda appeared on a grander scale in the Verostko Center for the Arts.
Dr. Juan-Carlos Rivas, associate professor of modern and classical languages, explained that the ofrenda has been part of SVC’s tradition since 2017.
“My wife, María A. Rivas, came up with the idea because she wanted to commemorate the ‘Día de los Muertos’ holiday and share the importance of this Mexican holiday with the Saint Vincent Community,” he said. “Prior to this year, we considered setting up the ofrenda in a different place to give it more visibility, but we could not find an appropriate space.”
Dr. Doreen Blandino, professor of modern and classical languages, has spoken with Andrew Julo, director and curator of the Verostko Center for the Arts, in the past about possible locations. Julo later suggested the recently opened gallery as the new home of the ofrenda.
“Placing the altar in the new gallery served to amplify a tradition previously enacted by faculty,” Julo said. “In addition, the center’s location inside the library as well as the size of our space is able to accommodate more visitors, particularly given social-distancing protocols.”
Rivas, Blandino, Julo, and the Spanish and Art Clubs participated in creating decorations. Rivas said that about 15 students were part of the efforts, many of whom joined after being invited by the Spanish Club’s executive board.
“The Ofrenda was a good way to involve students and give them something to do during the pandemic,” Rivas said. “Three weeks before [setting up the ofrenda,] Mrs. Rivas led the students in making ‘Flores de Papel’ (Paper Flowers). The following week we worked on ‘Decoración de Calaveras’ (Skull Decoration).”
A painting also hung in the space where the ofrenda was situated. Robert Kollar, junior studio arts major and president of the art club, explained the Art Club’s contribution to the display.
“As the Art Club president, a student worker in the gallery and an artist myself, I was asked by Andy Julo to spearhead the process of creating a painting that used Day of the Dead imagery,” Kollar said. “The piece was intended to be a project for students to combine their creative efforts to make something that would be installed opposite the ofrenda as a way to call people into the space and be a visual extension of the ofrenda.”
Kollar collaborated with some Art Club members to create the painting.
“I painted the background and the skulls and had Art Club members design the skulls and help paint the flowers,” he said.
Once the decorations were complete, preparations to set up the ofrenda began.
“María Rivas, Juan-Carlos Rivas, Doreen Blandino and I set up the altar—which was wonderful,” Julo stated. “We agreed upon the overall format of the altar before Juan-Carlos installed the paper flowers students had created on the wall. Items were arranged by María and myself so that the ofrenda was dense with images, candles, flowers, [and more].”
Other than festive decorations, the ofrenda featured a list of deceased alumni, an approximate number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States, and photographs of individuals who had passed on, said Rivas.
“We supplied some of the same photographs we had displayed in previous years,” he explained. “They were mostly of deceased people important to Mexican, Latin American, and American culture. The rest of the photos were supplied by other members of the community who were invited to bring photos or mementos to honor deceased loved ones.”
Rivas stressed the social impact of having an ofrenda on campus during the pandemic.
“Death in 2020 is part of our daily lives, especially at times when there is a surge in the number of people dying every day. There have also been a number of high-profile deaths in America and [the pandemic’s] consequences have been felt in many parts of the United States,” Rivas stated. “As a society we’ve had to deal with a tremendous sense of loss this year and hopefully this community ofrenda was able to bring us together in remembering all the people deceased, those close to us and those who are part of the national conversation.”
Julo said that the timing of the display was opportune.
“Now more than ever it's important we call to mind those whose lives were claimed to COVID-19, racial hatred, chronic illness, civil conflict, suicide and disease,” Julo said. “During a time when so many have died yet funerals have been postponed or capacity has been severely limited and travel limited, this year's ofrenda served as a tangible way of commemorating the deceased. We wanted to facilitate a hands-on, creative opportunity that encouraged our community to contemplate individual as well as communal loss while engaging a custom from traditional Mexican culture.”
“In relation to traditional Mexican culture, [the ofrenda] is a stark reminder of our own mortality,” Rivas added.
Kollar mentioned the importance of expressing emotions during the pandemic and talked about how the ofrenda provided an opportunity to do so.
“I feel that the biggest impact of having the ofrenda on campus during COVID-19 is that it allowed students a way to express themselves emotionally during such a trying time. Whether it be helping to create the ofrenda or painting and expressing emotion through art, or participating in putting a memento on the ofrenda, or just being able to visit it,” Kollar said. “As an artist, I feel that art is able to express many different kinds of emotion that humans have trouble expressing verbally.”
Julo pointed out that sometimes, that expression is a community endeavor.
“Assembling the altar in the Verostko Center for the Arts recognizes that the socio-cultural rituals associated with life, death, love and remembrance are also occasions for art-making activities that testify to the most significant moments within our shared human experience,” Julo said. “We anticipate continuing this wonderful tradition [in the Verostko Center] next year and hope that even more folks contribute photos and mementos in honor of deceased loved ones.”
A post on the Verostko Center’s Instagram sums up the message of the ofrenda: “Siempre te recordamos”—in English, “We will always remember you.”