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ALAS shares history of Dia de los Muertos

by Margaret Stewart - copy editor
Wed, Oct 31st 2018 06:00 pm
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Beginning on November 1 and lasting until November 2, Día de los Muertos is a celebration of the afterlife. More commonly referred to as the Day of the Dead, the multi-day holiday is centered around family as the structure plays a large part in Latinx culture as a whole.

 Heidilis Robles, President of Association of Latinx American Students (ALAS), emphasized Día de los Muertos is not equivalent to Halloween. 

“We know that death is supposed to come, that it’s natural. We celebrate their [our ancestors’] lives and their achievements,” Robles said.

While Halloween is known for mischief and horrifying reincarnations of the dead, Day of the Dead is all about the celebration of life. With iconic, explosive colors painted on traditional calaveras, also known as candy skulls, the Latinx holiday brings together life and death in a very personal way. In places like Mexico, people wear intricate makeup and costumes to different parties and festivals where they sing, dance, and celebrate their loved ones.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) expanded upon the definition of cultural heritage. According to UNESCO, the term includes the “living expressions of culture—traditions—passed down from generation to generation.” As such, in 2008 Día de los Muertos was added to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

Originating in Mexico by the Aztecs, Toltec and other indigenous peoples, the holiday is celebrated internationally across Latinx culture. Robles noted that, “The Aztecs felt that mourning their dead was disrespectful.” 

Logan Ward, writer for National Geographic, agrees, “The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth.” Today, celebrated on the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days respectively, they combine the Catholic traditions the Spanish conquistadors brought with their native practices and beliefs.

The most important piece is how their ancestors are welcomed home. Setting up ofrendas, or alters, they usually contain a picture of the person who is coming to visit as well as some of their favorite things. 

Sonia Mellado, who celebrates Día de los Muertos with her family every year, explains how they welcome back their ancestors.

“We put up pictures of our loved ones and set out their favorite foods, some flowers and some candles on the ofrenda,” Mellado begins. “We set out Mexican bread, glass-bottled Coke and Pepin.”

 Pepin, a dish that is soup like in consistency with chiles, was one of Mellado’s grandpa’s favorites. 

“We also set out water,” Mellado said.

 She explained that it is believed to be a long journey, returning from the afterlife and the water is to quench their thirst. Mellado’s family uses roses to decorate the ofrenda in addition to the marigolds that are traditionally used. 

“Scattered from altar to gravesite, marigold petals guide wandering souls back to their place of rest,” Ward explains. 

“The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar.” 

In addition to calaveras, catrinas or skeletons, are also used to decorate and celebrate over the course of the two days. The calaveras, historically used to perform short poetry about loved ones and the holiday, made an appearance in one of the political cartoons José Guadalupe Posada created. Attached to a catrina and dressed in aristocratic French clothing, was a societal critique on how Mexicans idolized and attempted to emulate European culture despite the death they brought.

“Todos somos calaveras,” Ward attributes to Posada, translates into, “we are all skeletons.” Essentially, the message is that underneath our skin, we are all the same. 

Robles explains that with their event on Sunday, Oct. 28, they wanted to “bring the culture to Brockport.” With an ofrenda, snacks and crafts like mugs and masks to decorate, the event was a success. “It is a time to celebrate our loved ones. It’s how we celebrate their lives.”

 

mstew@brockport.edu | @margotpolo96