Día de Los Muertos deepens bonds, belonging among families, MU community

Written by Leslie O’Connell, Campus Ministry team

Día de Los Muertos — or Day of the Dead — may sound mysterious or even puzzling. Let’s cast light on this life-affirming cultural celebration — one that’s unfamiliar to some and treasured by many. At its heart, it’s about family, belonging, tradition, and bringing people together across generations.

For the Marquette community, Día de Los Muertos has growing a following.

First, some essentials:

What is Día de Los Muertos? A celebration of love and respect for deceased family members and friends. It’s a special time to keep them alive in spirit through stories, song, dance and prayer. People of all religions and ethnic backgrounds share in this cultural celebration.

When does it takes place? Two-day cultural festival on November 1–2 each year

What happens? Many families and communities create an ofrenda — or altar — to honor the memory of loved ones. From simple to elaborate, the ofrenda pays tribute to deceased loved ones with photos and mementos. Symbols of four elements — earth, wind, fire and water — are central. (See related story.) The ofrenda invites and guides loved ones back to the land of the living.

During Día de Los Muertos, it’s thought that deceased loved ones fleetingly return to visit families and friends. The gates of heaven are said to open at midnight on October 31 so that deceased children can rejoin families for 24 hours. Then spirits of adults do the same on November 2.

Is it associated with a particular heritage? It’s strongly associated with Mexico, but it is celebrated throughout Latin America and places with a large Latino population.

What kind of celebrations? Like many traditions, practices vary widely. For some, festive parties draw communities together with food, dancing and singing, and even elaborate parades. Picture floats and people in colorful costumes. For others, the approach is more solemn — a day to visit cemeteries and pray that deceased loved ones have found their way in eternity.

What are its origins? Are there connections to Christianity? Its roots are twofold going both to the Native religions and to Christianity. On the Native side, its origins can be traced thousands of years ago to the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca peoples in what is now central Mexico, Central America, and the Andes Mountain, who had the tradition of honoring their deceased relatives for several days. Traditions grew to honor those who had passed on, as death was considered a natural phase of life. In some regions of South America these festivities extend for more than two weeks even today.

On the Christian side, since the ninth century All Saints Day (November 1) has been celebrated in the British Isles as a feast to honor all people who are deemed to have attained heaven and extended to all of Western Christianity in the 10th century. All Souls Day, also known as All Faithful Departed Day, (November 2), is a day to remember those who have died, in connection with the doctrines of life everlasting and the communion of saints. With the arrival of Roman Catholicism to the Americas, a mixture of the pre-Columbian traditions and these two feasts occurred. It was not regarded as a syncretism, or merging of different religions, but as an organic harmonization of the two cosmological points of view, which in theology is know as inculturation.

Is there a greeting? Yes! You can say “Feliz Día de Los Muertos” or “Happy Day of the Dead”.

Feelings of remembrance, joy

“It’s a very special time,” says America Garcia, junior in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a time to celebrate, not mourn. It’s a way to show that we still remember loved ones and keep their memory alive.”

Garcia, who was born in the United States, is Mexican American. For her, family traditions have been passed along by her parents, who were born in Mexico. Her mom is from Guerrero on the Pacific coast in the southwest. Her dad is from Veracruz in southeast Mexico, bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Growing up, her parents each had different customs in their communities. For her mom, it was spirited celebration. For her dad, it was more solemn. Today, Garcia’s family gathers to celebrate in a joyful way.

“We tell stories and sing songs and read poems,” she says. Remembering loved ones who died is a powerful link to relatives — perhaps even ones she’s never met. “It’s a chance to feel like I know them.”

Garcia says it brings feelings of connection, peace and joy.

Building life-affirming bridges

“Community and hospitality” are words that come to mind for J. Bernardo Ávila Borunda, assistant director of Campus Ministry. “We can say that the “Día de los Muertos is a celebration of the loving bonds among friends and family being stronger than death. It is the sense of offering hospitality and building community both with those who are living and those who have passed away.”

Traditions are not universal, though. Ashley Castañeda, junior in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, is Hispanic and was born in the United States. Although both of her parents were born and raised in Mexico, celebrating Día de Los Muertos hasn’t been a tradition for her family. “Being Hispanic doesn’t mean that we all celebrate Día de Los Muertos,” she says. Castañeda is quick to add that she recognizes and respects that it’s a valuable tradition for many.

Campus celebration inspires collaboration, creativity

The diversity of the campus community provides invitations for rich and broadening experiences. Learning about and appreciating customs and traditions across cultures helps strengthen relationships. Garcia encourages everyone to be curious and participate in Día de Los Muertos, no matter their ethnic background or traditions.

Borunda shared his reflection on the value and impact of the campus celebration. “For me the most memorable thing is different communities of students being able to come together through artistic expression in craft making to honor their ancestors and relatives who have passed, and building community with one another,” he says. “In this sense, it’s become a celebration that helps to build bridges among different student groups. The setting up of the altar every year has been in itself a collaborative effort of students who donate their time and creativity to celebrate these days.”

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