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The centerpiece altar of "La Ofrenda," featuring the "ofrendas" provided by members of South Philly's Mexican community. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News.
The centerpiece altar of "La Ofrenda," featuring the "ofrendas" provided by members of South Philly's Mexican community. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News.

“La Ofrenda” explores the artistry and meaning of altars with South Philly’s Mexican community

Muralist Cesar Viveros’ newest project held an opening ceremony on Saturday with three open houses planned at later dates.

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In Mexican culture, the “ofrenda” or what is placed on an altar to honor someone who has passed is most often associated in the states with Day of the Dead, a celebration popularized in the U.S. for its similarity in theme and proximity to Halloween. 

But as muralist Cesar Viveros’ newest installation in South Philly shows, altars and their “ofrendas” offer much more than an opportunity to honor the dead.

“La Ofrenda gave us the opportunity to actually celebrate, not only the belief system and a structure, but this project allows the artist Cesar Viveros to explore the artistry of that process,” said project manager Jose Ortiz-Pagan.

At its opening ceremony, in a part of the city selected especially for the project, “La Ofrenda” opened its doors to the public for the first time this Saturday. Across the street from South Philly Barbacoa between Ellsworth and Washington, the downstairs at 1135 S Ninth St. was transformed into a giant altar.

“The moment you walked in here, you became part of the ‘ofrenda,’” Viveros told attendees.

Upon entering the darkened room, the first thing visitors notice are the rows of flowers hung upside down from the ceiling. To the immediate right is a sculpted white and gold-trimmed cross above a drawer topped with more flowers and candles. To the immediate left is another table with flowers and candles surrounding a painted heart.

As the attendees ventured further into the room, they took note of the massive black panther painting on the left wall. It’s yellow eyes are locked with those of the pink dog adorning the right alongside a green parakeet — both tributes to real animals in Viveros’ life that honor his wife, who died before the project’s completion. 

At the back of the room sits the crown jewel of the installment. Between a painting of the Virgin Mary and a cutout of a tribal stone altar is a bigger display, complete with “ofrendas” provided by members of South Philly’s Mexican community.

“La Ofrenda,” is the result of two years of work from Viveros in collaboration with the Philadelphia Folklore Project. He, along with his wife started interviewing members of South Philly’s Mexican community about the individual altars in their households.

“We wanted to understand more how do they make the altars, what is the motivations behind them,” said Viveros.

At the beginning, Viveros and his wife weren’t sure how trusting the community would be sharing something very personal with them, but the response was the opposite.

“People are so proud, even if they don’t have it in a particular space, they want to talk about it,” said Viveros.

From a figurine of teenage Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy to flowers poking out from a can of Tecate, that pride came out in many different forms alongside more traditional displays, such as framed pictures of loved ones, flowers and lots of candles. 

The difference in interpretation communicates the multitude of ways people look at “ofrendas” even in just a single community.

“Sometimes it’s a way of creating some kind of connection. Sometimes we like to believe that we’re giving something because we might get something in return. And sometimes it’s just a way of expressing our gratitude for something that either happened, is happening, or we hope will happen,” said Viveros.

“La Ofrenda,” is holding three open houses in September on the 12th, 19th and 26th from 5 to 7PM. There will also be a special presentation from award-winning altaristas Ofelia and Rosanna Esparza on September 28.

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