Reimagining death: Meet a Fort Wayne artist sharing the culture of her Mexica ancestors

Have you ever asked the question, what is my family heritage? For some people, discovering family lineage isn’t exactly on the top of the list for ways to spend time. But for Fort Wayne artist Emily Guerrero, the history of her family and culture has always been a passion. She is not only an avid learner of these stories, but also she passes them down through her art.

The “ofrenda” is one of Guerrero’s primary methods for storytelling. In early November, the annual Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is celebrated. The holiday is a multi-day celebration for lost loved ones, in which families create home altars to honor and remember their dead relatives. These altars are called ofrendas, and Guerrero creates them to tell the stories of both family members and iconic historical figures.

“It’s not to be somber, it is a celebration of life,” Guerrero says. “It’s a sacred space for inviting ancestors and honoring them.”

An ofrenda to honor Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Creative Women of the World.

The Día de los Muertos celebration dates back 3,000 years, when the Mexica (Aztecs) and Nahua people, located in what is now central Mexico, held rituals honoring the dead. Guerrero makes it a point not to overlook the indigenous origins of the holiday.

“The indigenous people understand and teach their people—their children—that life is a cycle,” she says. “There’s a beginning and an ending; it’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s a natural part of life.”

Artist Emily Guerrero, left, and her granddaughter.

Guerrero’s work, which includes creating several ofrendas throughout Fort Wayne, comes at a tragic time in U.S. history, as the nation grieves more than 246,000 deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other deaths in 2020, like the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Breonna Taylor. An ofrenda inside Creative Women of the World in downtown Fort Wayne, honoring Mexican painter Frida Kahlo..

Some of Guerrero’s ofrendas allude to these losses, but her work is largely about sharing indigenous traditions. She says one tradition is to bring out water and salt because the spirits are hungry and thirsty. She includes colors symbolizing fire and paper cutouts symbolic of air and breath.

“They respected every aspect of nature, and they put that on their alters,” Guerrero says.

Guerrero also believes it is important that the ofrendas be a collaborative work. When creating the ofrendas on display at Creative Women of the World, a downtown Fort Wayne nonprofit and boutique, she and several of the employees worked together. One of the employees who she worked with, Sophia Franco, was blown away by the experience.

“I was very surprised that she wanted me to have a hand in this,” Franco says. “It really did bring us together. Emily has broadened my whole horizon, especially with the Día de los Muertos.”

Skulls are often placed as offerings on the alters. The tradition roots back to indigenous times.

Franco says helping build the ofrenda made her more grateful for the life that surrounds her. She feels that it helps one focus not on the end of life, but everything that happens in the middle—the important things.

“Each ofrenda has its own essence, and it will speak differently than another,” Guerrero says.

Ofrendas are altars that tell the stories of lost loved ones, both family members and iconic historical figures.

Why is Guerrero so interested in passing on indigenous traditions in Fort Wayne, you might ask? What could be the point of learning rituals from more than 3,000 years ago?

For Guerrero, there are a few reasons. One: She believes passing down these traditions in your family “keeps the love alive.” It is a way of teaching people how to celebrate life, instead of solely mourning the loss of it. Two: She feels it is her duty to her indigenous ancestors who were persecuted for practicing and continuing their old ways. Three: It is a cultural experience, and it helps make the world a better place.

“With ofrendas, I think it’s an important part of our tradition to share with other cultures and traditions,” she says. “It shows them that there are other ways to grieve.”

Artist Emily Guerrero, right, teaches granddaughter about ofrendas.

She emphasizes that any person can build an ofrenda, explaining that they do not have to be big or elaborate; they should be whatever feels right to the people creating them.

“I have personal accounts of people from other cultures and religions thanking me for teaching them indigenous ways,” Guerrero says. “That speaks to me that this tradition needs to be here in Indiana, far from Mexico.”

An ofrenda to honor Breonna Taylor illuminated with light.

Guerrero believes that all people should make an effort to discover more about their own ancestry and culture and to learn from the cultures of other people. She believes art is just one outlet that makes this possible. Franco agrees.

“We’re all human," Franco says. "Getting to know fellow humans and getting to know their art, what they love, their passions, that’s when you get that spark inside. A lot of people have that spark dimmed because of the negative impact from what we’re experiencing socially, politically, economically. I suppose local art and supporting it… it brings you closer to home.”