Día de Los Muertos Altar Honors Victims of Mexico Earthquake, Celebrates Circle of Life

Día de Los Muertos Altar Honors Victims of Mexico Earthquake, Celebrates Circle of Life

By Tehya Wachuta, Feature Editor originally published in Issue 4, Volume 30 of The University Register on Friday, November 3, 2017

In honor of the victims of the earthquake in Mexico, Vamos Juntos and the Latina Women’s Support Group built a colorful altar, located in Imholte Hall, to celebrate Día de los Muertos.

Día de los Muertos, meaning “Day of the Dead,” is a 3,000 year-old tradition which celebrates and honors the dead. While the name implies that it is only one day, the holiday actually spans two days. November 1 honors children who have died while November 2 honors adults who have died. The tradition originated in Mexico, but is also celebrated in areas in both Latin America and the US with a prominent Mexican population.

Erika Resendiz, one of the women who helped create the altar in Imholte, has been building altars for 15 years.

“[Building altars is] one of the few traditions that I had from my family and my grandparents,” Resendiz said. “I learned to do it from my grandparents, and I used to do it every year. I really like to do it. [I like] honoring the people in my family that passed.”

Third-year Arre Langer coordinated the connection between off-campus and on-campus organizations and was also in charge of translating materials and setting up the altar. These altars are important to her because they create a respectful way not only to honor the dead, but to honor traditions from other cultures as well.

“I personally believe that opening a respectful path to honor traditions of other cultures is very important,” Langer said. “Here in the US, we tend to shun other traditions and practices. This has harmful effects on the well-being of those being oppressed. By sharing this practice we are creating a welcoming environment for all.”

This concept is important to Spanish professor Windy Roberts as well.

“As an instructor and professor of cultural languages, I think it’s important to connect learners and non-learners of the culture to tradition that is so highly regarded by a community that’s becoming highly regarded here in Morris,” she said. “To me, it’s an opportunity to showcase a tradition. I like the idea of honoring death and creating a yearly quest to remember [the dead]. [The altar] is supposed to have photographs of the dead, to remember them in a positive way. I like that philosophy of life and culture, that life is a cycle; you don’t die, you just take turns.”

There are many components to the altar, but the most prominent is food. It is believed that souls are guided by the aroma of the food they enjoyed in their lifetimes.

“The popular belief is that the souls of loved ones that left this world return on the Day of the Dead,” Langer said. “Because of this, they receive an offering made of their favorite foods, drinks, sugar skulls, and if children, toys.”

Another important aspect of the altar is the flowers. Cempasúchil flowers, bright orange marigolds, are believed to guide spirits to the altars through their bright color and sweet scent.

The idea of souls returning to Earth for a short period of time to offer closure to their loved ones is something that Roberts values.

“I like the idea about the circle of life; the real death sentence is when you forget about who died,” she said. “This is a way — with the altar, the aroma of the food that the loved ones loved in their past — to bring them back.”

Although a Día de los Muertos altar usually honors specific people who were close to those building the altar, the altars here were created in commemoration of the victims of the earthquake in Mexico. The earthquake occurred on September 19 and is estimated to have killed over 300 people.

“Because of the incredible amount of victims, we cannot individually honor each one, but we hold their families’ suffering in our hearts just as well,” Langer said.

Photo on top courtesy of Tehya Wachuta