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Colorful skull on colorful traditional Day of the Dead "ofrenda" in Puebla, Pue., Mexico

All You Need to Know About Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos is a celebration of life and joy in which every year on Nov. 2, families gather to honor the lives of those who have departed.The Mexican traditionwill be celebrated again this year at the University of Northern Coloradowith activities on and off campus.

The Meaning Behind This Colorful Celebration

Día de los Muertos is a celebration of life and joy in which every year on Nov. 2, families gather to honor the lives of those who have departed. The Mexican tradition will be celebrated again this year at the University of Northern Colorado with activities on and off campus. The Chicana/o and Latinx Studies program is hosting their annual Día de los Muertos Celebration on Nov. 1, that features student presentations on altars. The altars will be on display Oct. 31 through Nov. 4 in Campus Commons. UNC’s College of Performing and Visual Arts is also hosting a performance this year titled In Remembrance, a concert of choral music honoring and celebrating those who have departed.  

One of the songs will feature vocal soloist Reese Cruz, a student in UNC’s Vocal Performance program. Cruz will be singing a Mexican traditional song arrangement of La Llorona, a story about a weeping woman.

“This is a celebration to honor our beloved ones and it has to be understood with respect,” Cruz said. “I grew up in a family with deep Mexican roots. I remember how every year, on these days, we used to set up our altar with food, candles, candy skulls and pictures of my relatives. For me, this was always a sacred moment, and I am immensely proud to be able to share my traditions now through my singing. I hope you all can come to the concert."  

Samuel Dong Saul, assistant professor of Graphic Design, Studio and Foundations Coordinator, who is presenting a collection of 30 digital art pieces at the Tointon Gallery in Greeley on Nov. 1, mentioned how Día de los Muertos is a way for him to honor his own mother.  

“It’s very important for me to celebrate Día de los Muertos through my digital illustrations, because it is my way to honor the memory of my mom.” Dong Saul said. 

Although originally a Mexican tradition, Día de los Muertos is gaining interest among the American population every year. However, it is important to consider the deep meaning behind the painted faces and the candy skulls.  

As someone who has worked for several years promoting the Mexican culture and particularly the Day of the Dead through the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, UNC’s new Bilingual Communication Strategist, Carlos José Pérez Sámano answers some of the most common questions about this celebration.  

  • What are those indigenous elements?

    Well, here we must be cautious. First, let us remember that the word indigenous comes from the western point of view. In fact, people from distinct cultures, before the colonization, did not call themselves indigenous. The term indigenous can be misleading, because it puts many diverse cultures in the same category and a lot of them still exist and thrive.  

    Día de los Muertos is a tradition originated in Mexico that now is shared along other Latin-American countries. Each country observes different customs. The Mexican tradition is a complex combination of indigenous Aztec and the Spanish Catholic traditions. It has been inscribed, since 2008, on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.  

    However, one of the main elements that Día de los Muertos carries from those so-called indigenous origins is the belief that when someone dies, their spirits do not go to another physical place like heaven or hell. The spiritual world is in this same world, but experienced in a different dimension, a deeper one. The spiritual world is here, but more connected to the entire universe, especially with nature. That belief was transformed with time and now some people believe that during the night of the celebration, the spirits will come to visit us.  

  • When is the Día de los Muertos and how would you describe it to someone who wants to know the meaning of it? 

    It is celebrated on Nov. 2. A lot of people go to the cemetery during the day to visit their beloved ones who passed away, to clean and decorate their tombs and to celebrate with them. It’s believed that during that night, our beloved ones will come to celebrate with us. The deepest meaning of this celebration is to remember the life of those who we loved.  

    An immensely popular element of this celebration is the ofrenda, or altar. The ofrenda is usually set on a table in a special place in the house like the living room where people set up a series of elements for the dead ones to come to the altars and enjoy the food.

  • What are those elements, are they all important?

    Some elements of an ofrenda can be food, drinks, candies, cigarettes and desserts that the people liked when they were alive, their pictures, a cross, candles, papel picado, candy skulls and a lot of Cempasúchitl flowers. Each one of these elements has a meaning. The pictures help us to remember them. The candles represent the light of faith, all the food, drinks and sweets are for the loved ones to come and enjoy. And the Cempasuchitl is a particularly important flower that is used specifically for this purpose: the smell of it will guide the souls to the altar. The Cempasuchitl flower is remarkably likemarigold, but it has a strongsmell.Papel picado is cut and colored tissue paper used to decorate the altars. Tissue paper came to Mexico from China. The colors of the papel picadohave meaning as well. The color that was used by the Aztecs for funeral purposes was orange, then the Catholic tradition included purple, that is why nowadayswe see a lot those two colors used during Día de los Muertos. Other colors have meaning as well: Green is used if the person who died was young. White if they were adults, and yellow for older people. Red is for those who died in battle or during childbirth, blue for those who drowned. However, the use of colors is not restricted, and the family can decorate the altar with as many colors they want.  

  • Is it appropriate for a person who is not Mexican to celebrate Día de los Muertos? Can we put an altar in our house? 

    Yes, and please do.  

    Some people talk about cultural appropriation, and of course we must be mindful of the deep meaning of all the cultural elements. But culture is always a mix, and if someone wants to respectfully celebrate those family members who passed away and set up an altar for them, it is totally encouraged. Sharing our traditions is how we keep them alive.

UNC is celebrating this tradition with several activities that you can find listed below:

On Campus: 

  • UNC’s Día de los Muertos. Organized every year by the Department of Chicana/o and Latinx Studies will include student presentations on altars, legend storytelling, literary calaveritas contest, La Catrina más Catrina contest, food, live music, etc. on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 5-8 p.m. More information.
  • Concert and Altar: In Remembrance: UNC Concert Choir, Chamber Choir, Glee, and University Singers present a concert of oral music on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 7:30-9 p.m. More information. 

 Local Events:  

  • Greeley Creative District: Community Día De Los Muertos Celebration and Art Exhibit at Tointon Gallery on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 7-9 p.m. More information. 

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