Dia de los Muertos/ Day of the Dead

When I was a student at UNI, one of the things I remember most about Halloween was that the Center for Multicultural Education (CME) always put up decorations for “Dia de los Muertos”, also known as Day of the Dead. Growing up in Puerto Rico, I had never heard of this holiday. It wasn’t until college that I learned more about this Mexican tradition that I now love and celebrate. When I became a full-time professional staff member in the CME, I had promised myself that I would be a tradition-keeper. Therefore, each year, I have put the “Dia de los Muertos” altar up instead of Halloween decorations. Fun holiday AND brings cultural awareness…who can turn that educational opportunity down?!
During my first year as a professional at UNI, we had a non-traditional student that worked at our front desk named Astrella. She was the one who used to set-up the altar for us, as well as do workshops on how to make sugar skulls (another tradition during Day of the Dead). Since she was getting ready to graduate, I offered to help out with the altar so I could learn more about how to set it up for the following year. Astrella is Mexican, but is also part Apache. She explained to me that Day of the Dead is really at its core a Native Indian tradition. However, when the Spanish colonizers came to conquer Mesoamerica, their ideologies and religion were pushed on to the indigenous peoples. This is why this celebration now falls along with the Catholic holy days of All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd. It is believed that the Spanish priests also saw correlations between the holy day and the Indigenous celebration. They wanted for the Indigenous peoples’ celebration to be viewed as acceptable by other Spanish and European settlers, as many believed that this tradition of celebrating the dead was pagan. However, if you know the history of Mesoamerica and the Spanish colonization…this moving of the holiday to November 1st and 2nd could have been forced on the Indigenous peoples, but that’s another story for another day.
Astrella created a large arch, made of tree branches, to place above our altar. It was covered with yellow marigolds. She said that the arch was symbolic of the passageway into afterlife. The yellow marigolds are a traditional flower of the season, and it is meant to represent how short life can be. I have not been that crafty to create an arch, but the marigolds have continued to be a staple on the CME’s altar. Among others items, candles are placed on the altar to light the way to the afterlife. Photos of loved ones are also placed around the altar. Their favorites foods, beverages, or items that belonged to them, may also be displayed. Everyone’s altar is different. Last year, we had an Intro to Spanish class help us decorate the altar. Their instructor had given the students the assignment of creating their own altar with shoeboxes. Students made “mini-altars” for specific people, mostly celebrities like Jimi Hendrix and Brittany Murphy. Someone even made one for their dog.
Last week, students from the Hispanic Latino Student Union helped me set-up the altar at the CME. Some brought photos of family members and friends who had left. I put photos of students who have passed away recently, as well as staff and faculty (I put one up of my mentor, Drake). I think Day of the Dead is a cool tradition to partake in. I understand that sometimes we get sad when someone passes away. That’s part of our Western culture. But I think it’s great to celebrate their lives and accomplishments, even when they are gone, and to hope that wherever our loved ones are at, that they are happy.
How do you honor loved ones who have passed?
Tabatha Cruz

Student Affairs - the First Years

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