Día de los Muertos: From Childhood to College

El Centro hosts annual Day of the Dead

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Lighting candles is a tradition that radiates on Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Flames illuminate the path for spirits of the deceased to find their way to visit living loved ones.

Día de los Muertos twists the darkness typically associated with death into a celebration of life. El Centro, the on-campus resource center for Chicanx and Latinx students, will host its annual Día de los Muertos Ceremonia on Nov. 2 and a dance, Baile de los Muertos, on Nov. 3, in the College Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room.

Illustration by Anna McGrew

“[Día de los Muertos is] a celebration in which we remember people who have left our side,” said fifth-year and El Centro undergraduate student program coordinator Luis Cubas. “[It is] a moment where we recognize them as individuals and acknowledge that they’re still part of our memories, still part of our community.”

The holiday is most commonly celebrated in Mexico, but also takes place in other Latin American countries with a strong Catholic presence. Today Día de los Muertos is a largely secular holiday, but the celebration stems from both Aztec and Catholic rituals in Mexico. This blending of traditions reflects the country’s indigenous roots and colonial influence. Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents), Nov. 1, honors infants and children who died, while Día de los Muertos takes place the following day to honor adults who have died.

El Centro’s ceremonia offers students access to celebrate a tradition they’ve grown up with. Fourth-year and El Centro intern Margarita Yañez, who has participated in the event since her first year, believes it’s especially helpful for new students.

“It’s a way for [first-years] to not forget about their roots if it’s something that they constantly celebrate every year back home,” Yañez said. “It’s a place of not losing our culture and being able to celebrate it together.”

Thursday’s event will include the defining components of the celebration, such as a community altar, papel picado (paper cutouts), candlemaking, sugar skull decorating and traditional food. Students can bring photographs of people they want to honor to the altar.

The activities give rise to deeper memories of visiting family in different countries and emphasize the power of food to show respect. Yañez remembers camping out at the cemetery with her family in Mexico, where they cleaned her grandmother’s stone, brightened it with flowers and left mole, a sauce made from various spices, chili peppers and a little chocolate, which her grandmother loved.

After losing his father two years ago, Luis Cubas, El Centro coordinator, found it difficult to talk about loss with his friends. Día de los Muertos is the rare occasion where he feels he can talk about his experience because it fosters these feelings in a communal space.

“A lot of times, when you’ve lost an individual, you just don’t have that much space to talk about it or even think about it or acknowledge it,” Cubas said. “But that’s what this space allows — a time and space where you can have those conversations.”