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Campus organizations celebrate Dia de los Muertos

On Nov. 1 and 2, the streets of Mexico will brim with celebrations of Dia de los Muertos — literally meaning “Day of the Dead” — with colorful papel picado decorations, giant parade floats, face painting, mariachi bands and traditional dancing. 

Dia de los Muertos originated in Mexico, although it is widely celebrated in the Mexican diaspora globally to commemorate loved ones who have passed away. Nov. 1 honors children who have passed away, while Nov. 2 commemorates adults. The holiday is a joyous celebration rather than one of mourning, according to a talk by Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) faculty fellow Jenny Padilla. 

“The centerpiece of Dia de los Muertos is remembering your loved ones who have passed, remembering the life they lived and sharing your stories with other family members,” Denise Brenes, assistant director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS) said.

Emily Meneses, vice president of the Spanish language choir Coro Primavera, said that during this time, many believe the dead come closer to the living. It is a day to honor friends and family who have passed away, she said. 

The ILS hosted a community gathering Tuesday to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. The event featured traditional Mexican food and a display of altars created by student groups. Padilla spoke at the event about the origins of the holiday and traditions associated with Dia de los Muertos.

She discussed how families create and decorate altars to honor their loved ones who have passed. The altars are set up in homes and cemeteries and contain photographs, flowers and ofrendas — or offerings. 

“The altars are decorated with offerings that are meant to represent the four elements: fire, water, wind and earth,” Padilla said. 

She explained how the different elements are incorporated into the altars. Fire is represented by candles that light the way for the spirits to return to their families. Pitchers of water are placed on the altars to quench the spirits’ thirst. The wind is represented by papel picado — intricately cut papers that help the souls pass through. Earth is represented by traditional foods, like pan de muerto, hot chocolate and tamales. 

Padilla explained that marigolds are the holiday’s iconic flower. The altars are decorated with bright orange and yellow flowers because the fragrance is said to help guide the spirits from their burial place. 

La Catrina, the elegant skull, is another symbol associated with the holiday and it is seen in costumes, face paintings and candy skulls. It originated as a satirical lithograph in the 1910s by Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada. 

The two-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos aligns with All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2,  days of prayer and remembrance observed by Christian denominations. 

Dia de los Muertos was originally an Aztec tradition celebrated during the summer harvest season.

“The origins of Dia de los Muertos date back to the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America and the idea is that death and the dead are to be celebrated and honored rather than mourned,” Padilla said.   

It wasn’t until the 16th century, during the Spanish colonization of Mexico, that the dates of the holiday changed. Brenes explained that after colonization, holidays involving pagan traditions or rituals were incorporated into Catholic celebrations, so today’s celebration of Dia de los Muertos contains an amalgamation of pre-Hispanic traditions and Christian religion.

Meneses discussed the intersection between the two traditions.“We celebrate Dia de los Muertos because we honor the saints, and so from a religious perspective, they can intercede for us and bring us closer to the deceased,” she said.

A holiday that is mistaken as having ties to Dia de los Muertos is Halloween. Padilla clarified that although Halloween and Dia de los Muertos “occur in tandem and [though they] share similar customs like candy, face painting and community gatherings, the two are not related.”

To mark the second day of Dia de los Muertos on Wednesday, Campus Ministry is holding a procession at 7 p.m. from the Cedar Grove Cemetery culminating in a prayer service at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Following the service, there will be a reception in the Coleman-Morse lounge where student clubs including Ballet Folklorico Azul y Oro (BFAYO), RitmoND, Coro Primavera and Mariachi ND will be performing. 

Arianna Kelley, diversity council representative of BFAYO, said the group will be performing typical Mexican folkloric dances and painting their faces like skulls. Coro Primavera and Mariachi ND will be leading songs that will be sung during the procession from the cemetery to the Basilica. Coro Primavera will be singing “Un pueblo que camina” — which translates to “a town that walks.” “It’s a really great song to show how a community can move itself and spiritually uplift each other,” Meneses said.

You can contact Caroline Collins at ccolli23@nd.edu

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