(Photo by Khanya Brann)
In her earliest memory of creating an ofrenda with her family for the Day of the Dead, Claudia Peregrina is 5 years old, living in her hometown of Mexico City, and determined to honor her dog, Tommy, who had recently died.
She remembers asking for calaveritas de azúcar, colorful sugar candy skulls, to add to the ofrenda, below the photos of departed relatives she was too young to know and next to the fresh pan de muerto her grandmother baked.
“The nicest thing about this tradition is being able to share all the food and joy with others at the end of it all,” she said. “You can have a big party for days with your family and friends while celebrating the memory of people who left but are still in your heart.”
Over two thousand miles away and decades later, Peregrina, a Philadelphia-based teaching artist and community organizer was the lead artist behind the ofrenda for Fleisher Art Memorial’s seventh annual Day of the Dead celebration. She’d been a part of La Calaca Flaca, Fleisher’s official Day of the Dead committee, for six years and wanted this year’s ofrenda — which took two months to plan and bring to life — to be a tribute to the canals of Xochimilco, a historic pre-Hispanic borough of southern Mexico City.
She made it a priority to include the community in the ofrenda’s construction. Peregrina held a workshop at Fleisher, a community art center in Southeast Philadelphia, where she taught students how to use coffee filters and dye to make the vibrant traditional paper flowers that adorned the ofrenda.
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Middle and high school students in the SAILOR STEM Boatbuilding initiative at the Independence Seaport Museum built the two trajineras — traditional flat-bottomed boats used in Xochimilco — that Fleisher students helped Peregrina paint and fill with clusters of candles, paper mache skeletons and offerings of guavas, sugarcane and corn.
The purple, yellow and magenta papel picado on either side of the ofrenda were sourced from a women’s group in her old hometown that teaches the craft to single mothers without access to childcare, pays them for their work, and invites their children to accompany and learn with them.
“As a mother, it’s so difficult to get an opportunity for work if you don’t have childcare,” Peregrina said. “I could probably have bought these from a big store or company, but for me, it’s really important to give recognition to the people working hard that nobody knows about.”
Peregrina’s community work often centers Latina women and youth, many of them immigrants like herself.
When she moved to the U.S. in 2004, her first few jobs were in kitchens and at a money transfer agency. It took a while to adjust to no longer practicing the professions she had in Mexico, where she was a choreographer and social worker.
Peregrina regained a sense of purpose when her coworkers and customers in line started sharing their experiences with homesickness, isolation and anxiety with her. Many of the women she spoke with were experiencing sexual or domestic violence or dealing with unaddressed trauma, and felt alone in their struggles.
She began gathering groups at parks and community spaces — separate ones for men and women — and inviting them to share their stories. Over time, Peregrina, who believes in the power of art therapy to help people heal, became interested in working more regularly with organizations focused on empowerment and support.
She’s worked with Women Organized Against Rape as a sexual abuse counselor for over five years and ran a Bring Your Own Project series, program at Fleisher that seeks to connect local teaching artists with the community.
Through a grant from the Leeway Foundation in 2018, she led a series of workshops for Latinx teenagers at the Providence Center through which she taught them how to paint tenangos, vibrant images of mystical birds and flowers, indigenous to Tenango de la Noria, Mexico.
“Part of my work includes sharing my country’s colors and culture with people and inspiring others to introduce their traditions, too,” said Peregrina, whose art workshops are often based on some aspect of Mexican customs. “We are a rich community and the world deserves to see all of our different cultures.”
The teens were mostly immigrants, some of whom had emigrated from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, she said. When the series ended, they all promised her they would paint something that reminded them of home.
Fleisher’s exhibitions manager, Gerard Silva, said Peregina’s warm nature and fresh approach to teaching has a unique impact on the Fleisher community.
"What I am trying to do with my art is to let you know that you're not alone."
“The one thing that she does very differently from every other instructor is that she treats her classes like they were in her own home,” Silva said. “It’s that kind of interaction when you go to someone’s place and they offer you the world. That’s how she does her classes and it really works well, because people really respond to that attitude.”
Peregrina also serves on the board at Moriviví Latino Cancer Support Group, a nonprofit for Latina women diagnosed with cancer. Moriviví founder Marla Vega has known Peregrina for years and has witnessed the effect her art therapy workshops have had on members’ self esteem.
“With her crafts workshops, the women can express things through art that they cannot express verbally,” said Vega, who was as a patient navigator working with Latinas with cancer for 17 years. “I admire her for being so dedicated to the community.”
Part of Peregrina’s drive to foster community is to alleviate some of the loneliness that can come with starting over in a new country and bring light to struggles that sometimes feel heavy and hopeless.
“What I am trying to do with my art is to let you know that you’re not alone,” she added. “You have a space where you can explore your talents, paint, write and feel safe. Yes, you are far from your family, but you can have a family here too.”-30-
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