El Día de los Muertos is perhaps one of the most misunderstood celebrations around the world. Many see it as an extension of Halloween; others see it as witchcraft. Only practitioners of Santería, Curandería or Voodoo could perhaps understand how misinformed people can be about a practice that is really beautiful and symbolic of a worldview.
The Student Organization of Latinos will celebrate el Día de los Muertos on campus on November 2 in the UC Ballroom. The idea behind our celebration is to hold true to the memorial part of the day, to remember loved ones who have journeyed on. The idea tis that death is but another step in the pathway of our souls. It is natural. The idea of death is creepy to most Westerners; death is distant and aseptic. It is something we are often taught to fear. Try to remember your first trip to a funeral home. For me I was 13 and a young 16 year man had died suddenly in his sleep from what turned out to be a hole in his heart. His body was the first dead body I had ever seen and I was terrified. No one tried to explain to me what was going on. I saw his mom crying and people trying to console her. I also guess it was my first confrontation with my own mortality. That moment scarred my perceptions of death.
Ironically, I never learned about the celebration when I was a student. I guess I was the only person to ever get a BA in Spanish without having learned about it. When I went on to graduate school, I went to Mexico to study to improve my language skills. It was in 1993 that I first learned about el Día de los Muertos. I didn’t think a lot about it at the time until I had the good fortune to return to Mexico in October, 1996. That was the first time that I came face-to-face with the aura of what is el Día de los Muertos. I entered the world of marigolds, skeletons, sugar and chocolate skulls, and pan de muerto. I also saw my first catrín. A catrin a skeleton doll made of papier-mâché or porcelain. I saw her face and I was enthralled at how beautiful she was. It was in that moment that the first tiny seed of the beginning of attempting to understand the celebration was planted. The catrín brought to mind the beautiful etchings of José Guadalupe Posada, pictures That depicted every day life in Mexico during the 19th century, but was skeletons. It was at that point that I made the connection that his drawings were a commemoration of a holiday that was so important. I learned that my family in Mexico didn’t really celebrate the holiday. They would go to the cemetery and remember their loved ones, but there was no dinner at the cemetery and convivencia with the spirits.
I have not tried to celebrate this holiday often here at SEMO. Many years ago Spanish club built an altar in the UC that really freaked people out. After that, I would have small commemorations at my house. It wasn’t until last year that SOL had a small, private celebration at the BSC. We shared food, Pan de Muerto, and watched The Book of Life.
This year we are inviting the SEMO community to come and celebrate with us. We are not experts at this, but we are proceeding with care and respect as we learn more about this beautiful celebration that commemorates life both here and beyond. From 6:00-7:00 we will decorate skulls, make tombstones in remembrance of our loved ones, watch some videos to learn more about this holiday, and have some snacks. At 7:00 we will dim the lights and invite anyone who wants to share to talk about their loved ones that have moved on. We will have an altar that will be as close as we can get it to an altar one might find in a cemetery in Mexico. We will laugh and cry at the memories that we have of those we have loved and still love. We ask that you not paint your face or wear costumes; that was for Halloween. This is not Halloween. This is a time when we can communicate with those who have moved on. It is our time to let them know that they are still in our thoughts and in our hearts.