by Pamela Avila and Georgina Sandoval
Death carries with it connotations of finality, darkness and mourning. However, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) breaks the melancholy mold of death as it transforms it into a celebration of the life and legacy of those who have passed away.
The notion of celebration and remembrance was at the core of Día de los Muertos, which was celebrated in Santa Cruz by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) and UC Santa Cruz’s El Centro, an ethnic resource center dedicated to the transition, retention and graduation of Chicano and Latino students.
“Many times people view death as a very scary and sad thing, which it certainly is,” said MAH youth programs manager Emily Hope Dobkins. “It is also important to celebrate what people accomplish in their life, reflect upon the people you’ve lost, think about those stories and memories and celebrate all of that in bright colors and art activities.”
Día de los Muertos –– a Latin American tradition originating from Mexico that infuses indigenous Aztec rituals with Catholicism –– has been celebrated at the MAH for five years.
This year, however, was the first year the museum split the event in two. The event now included an exhibit and a celebration at the MAH and a procession to Evergreen Cemetery for an outdoor altar exhibition, which the MAH’s director of community engagement Stacey Marie Garcia said added more authenticity to the festival.
The MAH transformed into a space of celebration as red, yellow, blue and orange “papel picado” swayed from the walls and ceilings. Adults and children were invited to build life lanterns and guests waited in line to get their faces painted as skulls, practicing the tradition of mimicking the rise of the ancestors.
“It’s been a real joy for me to work with so many different community members and see them light up over our new dynamic format — from the colorful art activities taking place at the MAH to the procession to the outdoor altar exhibition created at Evergreen Cemetery,” Dobkins said.
During Día de los Muertos, family members often clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones. In addition to celebrations, the dead are honored with “ofrendas,” or offerings, which consist of flowers, candles, food, drinks and photos of those being remembered. “Calacas,” or skulls, are also a popular decoration during the festivities.
Before beginning the procession to Evergreen Cemetery, Los Mejicas performed, with the women wearing brightly colored ruffled skirts trimmed with ribbons and lace. Their faces were painted as skulls and they danced to honor their ancestors.
Los Mejicas also took to the stage at UCSC’s celebration later in the day, dancing in front of an elaborate altar of golden orange marigolds and rising smoke that made the air smell of sage.
El Centro director Dr. Judith Estrada said the celebration worked toward not only celebrating death, but life.
“It’s this fusion of not letting go and of being able to bridge life and death in the sense that we are all vulnerable,” Estrada said. “Life and death have no boundaries in the sense of race, class, gender and ethnicity. We all come out of the same place and then we all die.”
Dr. Estrada emphasized the celebration’s ability to foster community within Santa Cruz. Students, faculty and staff, she said, can’t always go home, and this event creates a space where students can feel at home.
“Many of the students don’t want to be in Santa Cruz because they’re missing home. They want to go back to where they feel comfortable, where they can eat the food they grew up with, or get a hug from mom,” Dr. Estrada said. “The main reason to keep this alive is because the students want it.”
Fifth-year literature and Latin American and Latino studies major and El Centro intern Araceli Vicuña said El Centro and its activities continue to be crucial to her time in Santa Cruz.
“This space is a very comfortable space for me, coming from a community college where there were primarily Latinos, to here. It’s what made my transition from community college to the university much more welcoming,” Vicuña said. “It’s a home away from home.”
Día de los Muertos brought together the community to celebrate the lives of those who have passed. While the festivities taught many about the traditions and culture, they also served to transport others to a more comfortable and familiar place.
“[Día de los Muertos] brought a lot of people together and gave us a place to not be by ourselves with our offerings,” said fourth-year marine biology major Shandra Holmes. “There was a sense of beauty in connecting with our roots.”