A bottle of perfume, massage balls and a tiny figurine of Dumbo.
These were some of the favorite objects of author Sandra Cisneros' mother.
And they are integrated into an ofrenda, or an altar, that she built for her for the Dead of the Dead exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago.
"The altar for me is an homenaje (homage) to a self-educated woman from this area who never fulfilled her own suenos (dreams) because she had children and felt very thwarted by that," Cisneros told me in a quick interview Friday on the opening night of the exhibit. "So I tried to make my mother realize the things she had done with her life as opposed to the things she hadn't done and to nourish her spirit with the things that nourished her in her lifetime, books, sweets, and things that she loved very much like her massage balls."
Cisneros, the award-winning author of "House on Mango Street" and "Caramelo" was born in Chicago but now lives in San Antonio. Her mother, Elvira "Vera" Cisneros (nee Cordero Anguiano), was born in Chicago and died here on Nov. 1, 2007.
"She loved antiques, she loved her dolls, she loved movies...She loved Noam Chomsky. She loved to have her markers by her bed to highlight those pages and she loved cosas finas y muy bonitas," Cisneros recalled.
The base of the altar is a painted bed frame in honor of her mother having a room of her own in the last years of her life.
"She loved her room. She only had her own room the last 10 years of her life and she loved to garden. Those are places she was herself and she wasn't our mother or a wife. She was really her own person," Cisneros said pointing out some of the objects in the altar. "This is her embroidery and this is her grandmother's baby pillow for her. I tried to make a very feminine piece, something very personal."
There are pictures of her family, Cisneros and her mother and a small video montage of her love of flowers.
"Tenia un gusto muy fino," Cisneros said explaining her mother's personal taste. "She would juxtapose this fine taste with kinda funky objects like Dumbo the elephant there is hers. I don't know why. She would mix thing up."
The altar is a living memory and a Day of the Dead tradition fusing pre-Hispanic and Catholic rituals. The holiday celebrates the life and the likes of the loved ones who have departed and is marked by all-night vigils in cemeteries in Mexico.
"She didn't believe in earth and death. She believed one would live on with their children," Cisneros said. "It's about transformation."
The Day of the Dead exhibit runs through Dec. 13 at the museum at 1852 W. 19th St. It is comprised of more than a dozen altars, including an ofrenda to the late community leader Don Arturo Velasquez Sr., one to the DREAM Act, proposed legislation which would help legalize undocumented youth, and one in honor of grandparents.
"I don't believe in heaven or hell. I believe you live on in your kids, like the flowers in my garden."
-Elvira "Vera" Cisneros