Dia de los Muertos event honors cultural traditions

The Latin American studies program held the second annual Dia de los Muertos Altar Competition and first Procession of All Souls on Monday Nov. 2. The event—held immediately following Halloween on Sunday Nov. 1 and Monday Nov. 2—dates back thousands of years in Mexico and is a celebration of deceased loved ones.

“It’s the most important cultural holiday in Mexico,” assistant professor of history Ryan Jones said. The department—along with clubs like Anthropology Club and Spanish Club and related classes—hoped to create an authentic recreation of this sacred Mexican holiday through the decorated altars and first annual Procession.

Led by assistant professor of anthropology Melanie Medeiros, the Procession of All Souls involved a group of approximately 80 participants who painted their faces in the traditional skull pattern used on the Day of the Dead.

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a time to honor and celebrate the deceased through certain food and rituals, most notably by creating an altar to commemorate the deceased. The journey made by the loved ones is laborious, so family members decorate the altars with their favorite foods, drinks and objects to encourage them to come back.

“When you talk about Mexican culture, it’s a syncretic combination of the past and present,” associate professor of Spanish Rose McEwen said. The Day of the Dead embodies this through its focus on the deceased as well as its continued prevalence in Mexican culture.

The event drew in not only students and families who traditionally celebrate this holiday, but also students who wanted to learn about other cultures and to celebrate different traditions.

In addition, clubs, groups of students and classes such as McEwen’s SPAN 388: Latin American Civilization: Pre-Colonial to Conquered all helped to set up the event, even making their own altar for the competition.

“It’s very different from how American culture is, so I think that’s pretty cool,” SPAN 388 student senior Djoni Elkady said. Elkady’s class made their altar as historically accurate as possible, using McEwen’s own belongings and a three-tier altar—the historically correct way to construct them.

“Students really take this as something that’s expressive and meaningful for them,” McEwen said.

“We don’t really have any holiday in the [United States] when we can honor the dead,” visiting assistant professor of anthropology Jennifer Guzmán said. “I saw signs commemorating people who had died on the border as well as friends and family members.”

The event also intended to expand on topics discussed formally in classrooms across disciplines. Students frequently learn about the existence of and relationships between other cultures, but do not receive in-depth knowledge of the cultures themselves.

“We talk about culture but don’t delve into cultural expression very often,” assistant professor of political science Karleen West said.

According to Jones, attendance was much higher this year than it was at the 2014 event, with about 250 students participating in the processional, altar-making and altar-judging combined. Organizers hope to expand the event incrementally every year. In the distant future, Jones noted that she would love to see the Procession of All Souls going down Main Street.

“We’ve been able to make it a really big celebration,” Guzman said.