Gente Indigena embraces Day of the Dead as a celebration of life

The Latine collective will hold its third annual Dia de los Muertos celebration at Fifth Element Tattoo Gallery on Wednesday, Nov. 1.
Members of the Gente Indigena Collective
Members of the Gente Indigena CollectiveCourtesy Cat Ramos

Ellen Johnson’s mother died in October 2022 and the funeral was scheduled to take place the afternoon after a Dia de los Muertos event staged by the Gente Indigena Collective at Fifth Element Tattoo Gallery. Johnson, whose daughter works at the South Side shop, already had plans to attend, and so she did, despite the acute sense of loss she said she was feeling at the time.

“And there was a really beautiful part of the ceremony where they had a bonfire, and we were able to write down sentiments and then throw them into the fire. But also, if you wanted to, you could speak,” Johnson said. “And I took the opportunity to say some words about my mother, who, fortunately, lived to be 100 years old. And I was able to share how blessed I felt to have my mother for that long, and how hard it still was, because when somebody lives that long you almost start to feel like they’ll live forever.”

Going into the evening, Johnson said she had no plans to open up and share her story. But, inspired by the sense of community that existed within the space, she decided to let people in, describing the act as one that helped bring her a degree of closure, and which introduced a needed sense of strength she drew upon when she was called to speak at her mother’s funeral the next day.

“There were people at the ceremony who had written poetry, and others who spoke and shared their pain. And a lot of them had lost young people – brothers and sisters,” Johnson said. “And it was a way for everyone to commune together and pay tribute to one another’s ancestors and loved ones. … It reinforces the idea that you’ll reunite with your people in the beyond, which I already believed. But also, they want to check in on us, too, which I think is really cool.”

It’s this type of connection the members of Gente Indigena had in mind when they first brainstormed hosting a Dia de los Muertos celebration, the next of which takes place from 5-10 p.m. at Fifth Element on Wednesday, Nov. 1. (The event is free and open to the public, though donations are accepted; early bird tickets can also be purchased granting access to bonus activities.)

“What we try to do is bring people in and educate them with this event,” said artist Cat Ramos, who joined members of the collective at the tattoo shop for a late October interview and planning session. “We wanted to feel more represented in our Indigenous roots, more connected with our ancestors, and then also to bring the community in.”

Formed three years ago, Gente Indigena initiated as a place in which Columbus Latine artists could find a sense of fellowship. Gradually, this has evolved into public appearances and staging events, including a fundraiser to help one member get their green card, with several of the collective describing these public gatherings as a means of inspiring the youth in their community to become more engaged. “We all bring our family, our young ones, to participate, so they can have something they can grow up with, can remember,” said tattoo artist and Fifth Element shop owner Carlos Roa. 

This shift from personal to public also mirrors how Roa has come to view Dia de los Muertos, which he said he considered a “solo thing” in his youth and now embraces as a day to be experienced in communion. “We all have people who have passed, and we all share in that experience,” he said.

In that spirit, the members will erect a communal ofrenda, or altar, within Fifth Element, where photos or relics relating to loved ones who have passed on can be placed as a means of remembrance. (Ramos said more than 25 people were represented on the ofrenda last year.)

“It’s normalizing that grief is a community thing, and it’s not something that should be done solo,” Jacquie Campos said. “If you’re grieving, it helps to have someone there who has gone through it, and who can help you process it … in a healthy way, instead of just getting stuck.”

While aspects of the evening can be heavy – particularly the fire ceremony, which is focused on letting go of grief and served as a leavening moment last year for Ellen Johnson – the bulk of the event is centered on celebration and community, complete with face painting (with purchase of an early bird ticket), a costume contest, concessions, dancing and more.

“We try to help people with their grief, because we see in American culture that death is very morbid. But this really is a celebration of life,” Ramos said. “We’re celebrating our loved ones and that someday we’ll be able to meet them, but also the fact that we’re still alive.”

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