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Students engage in traditional Mexican celebration

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Thursday, November 1, 2012

Halloween is not the only celebration on campus this week. Festivities to commemorate the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday in the Great Hall of the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.

The event, sponsored by the Kellogg Institute, the Snite Museum and the Institute for Latino Studies, provides a way for students of all backgrounds to honor the dead and experience an important celebration of Mexican culture.

Kellogg faculty fellow and history professor Jaime Pensado said while celebrating Día de los Muertos is a very different experience here from in Mexico, it is still important to preserve the cultural elements of the holiday.

“There is definitely a nostalgia factor associated with looking back at your culture from the outside like this,” Pensado said. “Many Latinos here are embracing the Day of the Dead as a time to revisit their past and a way to reconnect.”

Pensado is one of the event’s faculty organizers who collaborated with student groups to plan and orchestrate the celebration. Senior Alejandro Sigala also helped with the planning and will deliver a talk at the celebration tomorrow about the “ofrenda,” or altar, that students constructed as a traditional part of the celebration. Sigala said such ofrendas are put together in honor of the dead and can be personal or political in nature.

The ofrenda at this year’s celebration honors the people who have died in the Mexican drug wars over the past 10 years, Pensado said.

“Ofrendas can be very specific, but this year we’re going beyond a specific person and taking advantage of the opportunity to reconnect and think about the thousands who have died in Mexico over the last two years as a result of the drug wars,” Pensado said. “It’s an opportunity to politicize an ofrenda, and this year students put it together to articulate their own interests and concerns in Mexico.”

Sigala said the ofrenda is the focal point of the celebration, and it has personal meaning to many of the students who helped construct it.

“For some of us, we have family members who have been affected by the violence of the drug wars in Mexico,” Sigala said. “[The ofrenda] duals as a political statement to raise awareness of this violence and the US-Mexico relations that help fuel it.”

Sigala said the ofrenda includes commemorative objects that represent the person or people to which it is dedicated.

“We included American and Mexican flags, as well as bullet shell casings, imagery associated with drugs and money and several different objects that are iconic of the drug war,” he said.

Pensado said he hopes the statement the ofrenda makes at the event will help bring the drug war issues closer to home for students.

“For us, we see the violence that’s taking place in Mexico as a Mexican problem and rarely see the international connection behind such violence,” Pensado said. “This gives us an opportunity to talk about the issues and talk about our own involvement.”

The Mexican Working Group, sponsored by the Kellogg Institute to create awareness of Mexican-American issues today, sought to use the Día de los Muertos celebration as an academic opportunity for students as well, Pensado said.

“The group helps make sure students get the opportunity to participate in the celebration, and in this case, they also will present papers on what the Day of the Dead means, and one of our graduate students will lecture on the drug war,” he said. “We wanted to give our students a chance to improve their skills academically, and this celebration is a good opportunity.”

Pensado said the academic discussion that will take place at the celebration will continue in the spring with an undergraduate student conference sponsored by the Kellogg Institute where students can present their papers on Mexican-American issues, including the drug war.

“This is all part of our attempt to give students an opportunity to engage with their own heritage and also with political and social issues,” he said.

Sigala said he hopes students of all backgrounds will come to the event and explore the culture presented.

“It’s important to approach it all with an open mind,” Sigala said. “You’ll get a bit of history, a bit of academic learning and a bit of food and entertainment.”