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2 artists spent years documenting Day of the Dead altars in South Philadelphia


Time now for StoryCorps. Many Americans observe Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Next week, they'll remember loved ones by creating altars in their honor. Two artists, Cesar Viveros and his wife, Ana Guissel Palma, spent years documenting altars in the Mexican and Central American communities of South Philadelphia until Ana became ill. She died in 2018, shortly before Day of the Dead. Cesar Viveros came to StoryCorps with his niece, Katherine Lopez (ph), to honor her.

KATHERINE LOPEZ: How did you feel when you found out that Ana was sick?

CESAR VIVEROS: She told me that she have a pain, and they told us that she got cancer. And for two years, it was a constant fear of losing 'cause that's the only way you can describe that. You will lose, or you will win.

LOPEZ: I do remember this one time that I was with my cousin, and I think we went into your room, and we grabbed some of the makeup that she had. And I remember her walking in, and she wasn't upset. She told us how to put it on, what's too much, what's too little. She was sick, but it was, like, a nice little moment in between the three of us.

VIVEROS: What do you remember from the day she died?

LOPEZ: I remember that I was scared 'cause I never experienced a death in the family. But I was called out to translate for the paramedics. And I didn't know that that role existed of being so strong for somebody.

VIVEROS: When she died, I could see her face was so relaxed, almost, like, in a smile. That moment, I felt, like, unable to move, even unable to think. And then it was the Day of the Dead.

LOPEZ: But because of her, we knew how to make a traditional altar. When we had to do one for her at home, we had her favorite soup. And when we woke up, my mom was like, Kathy, mira. And then we looked at the soup, and the soup went down. We checked the saran wrap. It was perfectly sealed the same way that we left it. We had that warm feeling of knowing that she actually did stop by.

VIVEROS: I want to believe that she's coming for these two days, and I want to impress her with all these flowers - Romerito, la flor de muerto - and food - chocolatito, los chile rellenos. There is a picture that I always like to put on the altar. It's a picture of her when she was younger, and it says, as long as you remember me, I will be eternal. (Speaking Spanish).

MARTÍNEZ: That's Cesar Viveros and Katherine Lopez remembering Ana Guissel Palma at StoryCorps in Philadelphia. Their conversation is archived in the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kayla Lattimore