On November 2, Palenque LSNA (formerly Logan Square Neighborhood Association) held a Dia de los Muertos celebration in the Hermosa neighborhood on Armitage Avenue between Pulaski and Kostner. The event, titled Noche de Calaveras – or Night of Skulls – featured live entertainment, family activities and an altar for fallen bikers created by Norma Rios-Sierra, Palenque’s cultural events manager.
Dia de los Muertos altars, or ofrendas, are created in memory of those who have passed away and invite the spirit of the deceased to visit with light decorations, flowers, food and drink. Rios-Sierra said she was inspired to create a community altar for cyclists due to the increase in the number of people on foot or on bikes killed by drivers since the pandemic. “This year, I was inspired by the work Palenque did with Elevate Chicago that had a lot to do with equitable development and the march of our neighborhoods,” she said. “I did some research and realized there was a whole database of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities. I thought it was so sad. There have been many more deaths during the pandemic; the number of people killed in the streets was higher. I thought it was time to create a space to honor those people who had been lost.
Rios-Sierra also cited the white-painted ghost bike memorials set up at fatal crash sites as partial inspiration for his ofrenda. “[The ghost bikes] honor the person who was lost but also call attention to what is happening there. The altar thus draws attention to the fact that our streets are not always safe for cycling or walking and perhaps we should do something about it. This community in particular is a working class immigrant community and I’m pretty sure many of us walk or cycle.
I attended Noche de Calaveras around 6pm as the sun was setting. It was an unusually warm evening for November, and a bright, waxing moon hung over the many Latino-owned businesses and restaurants that lined the south side of Armitage. On the north side of the street, just west of Keeler and in the field next to the small Latino Plus+ store, a large white tent was brightly lit and adorned with fairy lights. Inside, a five-tiered altar featured flowers, colorful skulls, loaves of pan dulce, and a small skeleton holding a scythe and dressed in white. Bicycle wheels hung from the backdrop, and a pair of white-painted handlebars rested on the upper tier. To the right of the altar, a skeleton in a floral robe sat atop a vintage Schwinn cruiser. On the side wall of the tent, posters in Spanish and English stated that the offensive was dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists killed by motorists. On the posters was the sobering statistic: “Since 2020, more than 71 pedestrians and 22 cyclists have lost their lives in Chicago.”
And yet, the spirit of Dia de los Muertos recognized the grief amid the festivities. A small marching band was setting up when I arrived and quickly broke out into a lively waltz. A crowd gathered on the sidewalk and parking lane, bouncing to the music and visiting the tent housing the ofrenda community. Rios-Sierra told me that community altars create space for healing. “[The altars] normalize the idea that we can mourn collectively and move forward collectively. Just as we plan fun festivals and events, we also need to stick together when the going gets tough,” she said. “I hope the altar is something that helps bring some joy to people while drawing attention to the fact that we need to make our streets safer.”