Bella Vista: Latinx Communities Come Together at Fleisher Art Memorial for Día de los Muertos Celebrations

Dolores Vera took a bus from West Philadelphia to work on her papier mâché axolotl, part of one of three free Día de los Muertos workshops at the Fleisher Art Memorial, located at 719 Catharine St. 

“Certainly the celebration in itself, of loved ones and everything associated with it, it just calls to mind colorful things and the creativity of it, and it just enables us to express ourselves,” said Vera. “I think it’s a wonderful project, and wonderful work that they’re doing here.”

Dolores Vera works on her papier mâché axolotl at one of Fleisher Art Memorial’s Día de los Muertos workshops. (Moriah Thoman/PN)

Día de los Muertos, translated from Spanish as Day of the Dead, is a traditional Mexican holiday where people celebrate their loved ones who have passed on. 

The Día de los Muertos activities at Fleisher Art Memorial begin in September and culminate with the celebrations that take place on Nov. 2. Among the various workshops are the printmaking workshops on Tuesday nights, taught by Alexis Nutini, an adjunct professor at Tyler School of Art and artist based out of South Philadelphia. 

Nutini was born in Mexico City, Mexico in 1978. His father was a cultural anthropologist who did research on culture in Mexico, and he considers his art his version of that research.

One of the woodblocks Nutini made of an image of his father. (Moriah Thoman/PN)

“I’m a continuation of that tradition in another way,” said Nutini. “His books were didactic for anthropologists and recording history. This to me is more didactic in just a general knowledge and for Fleisher and for my art, and this is to share a little bit of that tradition.”

Nutini’s printmaking workshop is one of three different Day of the Dead centered workshops offered at Fleisher. The Fleisher also holds their Pachanga de Los Muertos fundraiser on Nov. 1, featuring local food, margaritas, music and dancing. The committee that plans Día de los Muertos at Fleisher is called La Calaca Flaca, a community-based team of artists and activists who have meetings to organize the event. 

“One of the reasons they love holding it here is because our sanctuary,” said Gerard Silva, the exhibitions manager in charge of the Día de los Muertos activities at the Fleisher. “It used to be a church at some point, and obviously this is a celebration about the dead and it’s a perfect space to have an altar, which they build in there. Every year has a different theme.”

Silva said this year’s ofrenda theme is based on the vision of artist Claudia Peregrina, who focused on a region in Mexico called Xochimilco, which is known as the Venice of Mexico due to their canals and gondola-like boats called trajineras. She will be building three trajineras to place in the altar space. 

Silva said on Nov. 2 they close down Catharine Street and open the doors to everyone to enjoy a procession that starts at Southwark School, goes north through Ninth Street, makes a right on Christian Street, then turns left onto Catharine Street, where Fleisher is located. The celebrations also include food trucks, a craft vendor fair, and a children’s festival at the school with face painting and mask making. 

Nutini’s students used his woodblocks, such as this one of Nutini’s grandmother’s ofrenda, to make their own prints. (Moriah Thoman/PN)

Last year’s main artist was Nutini, whose theme was La Ofrenda de Todos, or everybody’s altar. His goal was to pay respect to the friends and relatives of those who he collaborated with who have passed on, as well as laborers in America and immigrants. 

Nutini thinks art can help to unite through the visual aspects of art, such as in the workshops at the Fleisher.

“I think printmaking has something to do with it because it is a process.” said Nutini. “It’s not like you and I are going to collaborate like, here let’s make this painting together. So then the printmaking, because of the process, facilitated that exchange.” 

Nutini demonstrates to the class how to use the wooden blocks and the press to create prints. (Moriah Thoman/PN)

Whether it’s the Latinx community or people from other cultures, the Día de los Muertos workshops at Fleisher have a diverse attendance. Nutini thinks it’s all about understanding others’ culture.

“As politics right now are closing off, and closing doors to the world, if we can share a little bit of what other people do, I think that’s extremely important,” said Nutini. “We all share and get along and get together in a classroom and pull a print together. And learn a little bit about the culture and about printmaking and art.”

When talking about the significance of having somewhere like the Fleisher to facilitate a celebration such as with Día de los Muertos, Nutini said having community support is important.

“Somebody who’s marginalized isn’t going to go to the police and, ‘Here, give me this permit,’” said Nutini. “They’re the last people who’re going to be comfortable [with that], so that’s what Fleisher does.” 

Benjamin Gamarra, a student at the papier mâché workshop, likes going to the workshops at Fleisher because of the community.

“It’s the whole therapeutic thing behind the handcraft, I totally believe in that,” said Gamarra. “I know the community who’s doing this and who comes here, and I love interacting with the community here.”  

For Gamarra, the activities and celebrations at Fleisher are important for both the Latinx community and people from other cultures. 

“It’s about our ancestry, our past, our present, our community and people,” said Gamarra. ”And also it’s important to expose and share that with other cultures with people from other places.”

Throughout his 13 years living in Philadelphia, Nutini has noticed changes in the visibility surrounding the Latinx community.

“I definitely see more visibility, certainly in South Philly, where you’re starting to see a lot more businesses,” said Nutini. “I think it’s growing, and I think Fleisher is part of it. And I think because of the need for outreach there’s other, either nonprofits or groups, that are helping with that transition.” 

The Latinx community in South Philadelphia has a place to celebrate loved ones through art and continue traditions through the workshops and celebrations at Fleisher. 

“I think it gives the community an opportunity to come together, and you come together under this wonderful celebration of loved ones that have gone on,” said Vera. “It’s just an excellent opportunity for the Mexican community to come together.” 

– Text and images by Moriah Thoman, video by Amanda Treible.

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