First lady Jill Biden views a Day of the Dead Exhibit during a tour of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen with chief curator Cesareo Moreno on Tuesday. | Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times
The first lady’s two-day visit to Chicago was intended to feature some of her planned charlas — Spanish for conversations — a series of discussions and listening sessions she is conducting across the nation.
First lady Jill Biden spent the first day of her two-day visit to Chicago on Tuesday honoring those who’ve died from COVID-19 and recognizing the harrowing impact the virus has had on the Latino community.
But mostly, she listened.
Biden’s first visit to the city as first lady was designed to commemorate National Hispanic Heritage Month, a 30-day period of recognition that wraps up Oct. 15.
The first lady’s stop was intended to feature some of her planned charlas — Spanish for conversations — a series of discussions and listening sessions she is conducting across the nation.
The first lady mostly listened on Tuesday, making no public remarks as she toured the National Museum of Mexican Art, which houses one of the largest collections of Mexican art in the nation. She mostly asked questions or commented on the exhibits at the museum in the Pilsen neighborhood.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Mayor Lori Lightfoot were among the elected officials who toured the museum with the first lady Tuesday afternoon, shortly after her arrival at Midway Airport.
Garcia, whose district includes the museum, said the first lady’s visit is “a tribute to all of the contributions that the Latino community in Chicagoland, especially in Mexican and immigrant communities” has made to the city.
Biden was serenaded by three 17-year-old members of the Chicago Mariachi Project in a blue room at the museum called the courtyard. That room featured the art and photography of students in Yollocalli Arts Reach, the museum’s youth initiative.
Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times
First lady Jill Biden, right, talks with musicians, from left, Luis Marquez, 17, Suesan Jarquin, 17, and Edwin Perez, 17, all with Chicago Mariachi Project during a visit and tour of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen on Tuesday.
After the band finished its first song, the first lady asked them to do another. Then she asked them questions about themselves.
Biden also visited three rooms in the museum, seeing two ofrendas that are part of its celebration of the Day of the Dead.
The ofrendas are alters built to honor deceased loved ones. The largest at the museum focused on “the tragedy we’re all living in,” the museum’s chief curator, Cesareo Moreno, said.
Photos of people who died from the virus lined the “COVID Memorial Ofrenda,” which took up an entire wall in one of the museum’s rooms. The alter was also covered in candles, bowls, hearts and small flags from around the world, including the United States, Mexico and Chicago.
Moreno said the museum received over 200 photos after asking people to send them in for the exhibit.
“The memorial, I think, is a testament to the fact that not all memorials have to be to individuals or celebrities … in history, but rather everyday people,” Moreno told Biden and the elected officials accompanying her.
“It’s more than just artwork. The Day of the Dead every year is about telling stories, and I think that by telling stories is how we keep them alive.”
Carlos Tortolero, the founder and president of the museum, said the first lady’s visit is a “great honor” for the community.
Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times
Chief Curator Cesareo Moreno shows first lady Jill Biden and local elected officials a Day of the Dead Exhibit during a visit and tour of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen on Tuesday.
A former educator, Tortolero said Biden, who is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, is “one of our gang — she gets it, she understands it, so it’s like a double honor for us.”
On Wednesday, the first lady is scheduled to join Garcia and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona for a charla at the Arturo Velasquez Institute. That school is a satellite campus of Richard J. Daley College, which is part of the City Colleges of Chicago.
Her visit comes less than a week after President Joe Biden stopped in Elk Grove Village on Thursday to encourage businesses to implement their own COVID-19 vaccine mandates or weekly testing.