For most of the world, 2020 has been the year of upheaval. American culture is shifting before our eyes as society works to dismantle systems of white supremacy while also challenging anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity in all its forms. Simultaneously, cultural sites like The Museum of Natural History and art museums across the country are under the magnifying glass, faced with calls to reckon with a long history of looting cultural artifacts, from which many African, Indigenous and ancient antiquity collections and exhibitions originate from. While world-class institutions such as the Field Museum work toward more ethical and radical transparency in how its Egyptian collections were acquired, there’s a local Mexican-founded entity in Pilsen where a new vision for museums is emerging. 

Striking in its forward-thinking, progressive approach, the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) has stood since 1987 as an example of what is possible in the art world, and of what can happen when an institution is founded from an inherently decolonized point of view. Today, NMMA is one of the most prominent first-voice institutions for Mexican art and culture in the U.S., housing more than 9,000 seminal pieces from ancient Mexico to the present. It is currently the only Latinx museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

Día de Muertos, a Mexican holiday celebrating and commemorating dead loved ones from Nov. 1-2, takes place during the museum’s traditionally busiest season of the year — when the bulk of its 130,000 visitors are welcomed to experience the Day of the Dead exhibition, which is now in its 34th year.

This year, an exhibition entitled “Sólo un poco aquí: Day of the Dead”, pays tribute to the nearly 1.2 million individuals from Mexico, the U.S. and worldwide that have died from COVID-19. The altar installations, paintings, and prints in the exhibition, created by Mexican artists like Maria Tomasula, Alejandro Nava, and Carmen Lomas Garza from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, highlight one of the most influential celebrations from Mexico. Over time, Día de Muertos has transcended borders and has, in this year of global death, offered a particularly vital opportunity for collective expressions of grief.

Image: Alfonso Alejandro Rosas Zapin (Zinapcuaro, Michoacn), Catrina con cntaros (Fancy Lady with Water Jugs), 2016, polychrome ceramic and wire, 31" x 19" x 9", National Museum of Mexican Art Permanent Collection, 2017

While the museum remains closed, visitors are invited to take a virtual tour of “Sólo un poco aquí: Day of the Dead.” A museum docent will guide visitors through the gallery and discuss highlighted works of art from the exhibit through Dec. 13. On Nov. 7, the museum will host the virtual Día de los Muertos: Love Never Dies Ball, which will feature cooking demos, cocktail making and face painting lessons.  

“I think that Día de Muertos is a great way for people to mourn, but it’s also a really great way for people to heal, when you celebrate someone’s life. It’s not always somebody who you just lost, it’s somebody who you honor every year,” NMMA Gallery Educational Coordinator Mario Hernandez tells The TRiiBE.

While the federal U.S. government has yet to offer a space (online or otherwise) for collective grief and mourning of the nearly 230,000 American lives lost to the coronavirus, the museum hopes to carve out a space for processing this trauma collectively and from a safe physical distance. 

“It’s a great way for us to keep those memories alive,” Hernandez added. For Chicago, keeping memories alive is something we could all use right now. 

It may be surprising to some outside of Chicago, which is about 1,400 miles away from the Mexican border, but Mexicans and Mexican-Americans make up about 75% of the city’s Latinx population. In total, the Latinx community comprises about 30% of the 2.7 million people living in Chicago. 

Community is at the heart of the museum, which aims to serve Chicago’s traditionally Mexican community in Pilsen and across the globe in the most accessible ways possible. The institution also prides itself on having a border-less, decolonial mindset woven into its DNA — from its activist-minded youth collective, the Yollocalli Arts Reach, and its permanent collections on Indigenous Mexican arts to its radically transparent collection policies and the way it frames the historical context of its collections and exhibits.

Image: Carmen Lomas Garza (b. 1948, Kingsville, TX), Heaven and Hell (Cielo e infierno), 1990, color lithograph with gold leaf / litografa a color con hoja de oro, 18/45, 30 1/8" x 22 1/4" (paper dimensions), National Museum of Mexican Art Permanent Collection, 1993

“One of the most impactful moments I’ve had at the museum happened when I started working there. I walked into the permanent collection exhibit, I was 18 at the time, and there was this big title for that section of the gallery that said the words ‘Pre-Cuauhtémoc’ making reference to what is known as pre-Columbus or pre-colonial,” Hernandez said. 

The gesture, meant to intentionally center the last Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc, aims to use his rule, roughly 1497 – 1525, to mark history pre- and post- encountering European peoples. It’s an alternative narrative to the traditionally Euro-centric approach of naming these eras “pre-colonial” and “colonial,” which frames history through the violent European rule over Indigenous peoples. 

Carlos Tortolero, the founder and president of the NMMA, understood that language is a powerful educational tool; one that can challenge oppressive power structures. He began using the term Pre-Cuauhtémoc in the 1970s and 80s when he worked as a teacher, counselor and administrator in Chicago Public Schools, according to the museum’s website. He purposely sought to de-emphasize the Eurocentric view of Mexican history.

“Given that the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica were more advanced than European cultures in the fifteenth century, regarding measuring time and creating an accurate calendar, Tortolero found [the use of the term pre-Columbus] puzzling and inappropriate,” Hernandez says. 

Despite facing a worldwide pandemic that has devastated revenue for most museums around the world, NMMA has not been as hard-hit as some of its peers, mostly because as a free museum it does not rely on ticket sales to fund its efforts. 

The institution’s community-grounded mission has also remained strong, as it continues to put the safety of the Latinx community in Chicago first. However, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the Latino community is not lost on the museum’s leadership, which according to data reported by NBC News shows that Latinos now represent 37% of all coronavirus cases in Chicago and a harrowing 25% of deaths. While most other museums across the city and country have reopened, NMMA has remained steadfast in its caution. 

“I think that it was a little shocking to some people that we remain closed, but we [still] try to take responsible steps,” Hernandez says. “This year is really different, because we weren’t able to bring anybody in from Mexico to create altars and to create ofrendas and so the exhibition looks really different, there’s a lot of more contemporary artwork in it, and a lot of it speaks to the pandemic. It reminds us of the reality that we’re living in.”

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.