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Valley prepares for Day of the Dead

Valley has put together some workshops to educate students about the celebration.

By Aimee Martinez, Valley Life Editor

Several uniquely-colored skulls are placed throughout an altar honoring a loved one during Valley College's Day of the Dead celebration in 2019. (Photo by Mickie Shaw/The Valley Star, File Photo)

To commemorate the upcoming Dia de los Muertos, Valley College held a workshop to discuss the history and how students can create their own altars.

Chicano Studies and the Office of Student Life and Student Equity sponsored the event. About 20 participants joined the Zoom call. Diana Cabral, who teaches the Mexican folk dance group Ballet Folklórico Aztlán at CSUN, led the lecture and demonstration.

Cabral explains that the celebration began with indigenous groups like the Mayans and usually lasted a month. Once the Spanish conquered and converted them to Catholicism, the tradition merged with two Spanish holidays: All Souls Day and All Saints Day. The former takes place on Nov. 1. Children and infants that have passed away are celebrated with toys and candies while adults are honored with items and food they once enjoyed.

According to Mexican tradition, it is believed that the soul of dead ancestors return to earth to visit and provide advice and counsel to family and loved ones. The festivities include visiting gravesites, where they clean and decorate tombstones with candles, flowers and the favorite foods of the deceased. Families who visit will eat, sing and tell their favorite stories.

Each household has their own customs when it comes to setting up altars, or ofrendas, but there are some commonalities. To demonstrate how an altar is built, Cabral set up her own. Among her items was pan de muerto, bread of the dead, shaped like a skull and bones to feed the visiting spirits. The salt from the salt shaker placed represents the continuance of life. Candles were lit to showcase the item, where it will light the path for loved ones. The cempasuchil flower also acts as a guide to the altar with its bright yellow color and strong smell. Photos were placed of the departed with a decorated tequila bottle, an item of her loved one. Vibrant and colorful sugar skulls are also typically placed as a symbol of death.

Today, the biggest festivities are in Mexico, but wherever there is a large Latino community in the U.S., there will be celebrations. In recent years, the popularity of Día de los Muertos has surpassed the Hispanic community. In 2017, an article by the LA Times discussed the mass commercialization of the Day of the Dead. Retailers like Target, Walmart, and Party City capitalized on the growing popularity. The movie “Coco” has also increased wide-spread recognition of the day. However, there are concerns about cultural appropriation and it being considered as a Mexican Halloween.

“As long as you truly have taken the time to research and read about the true meaning of this and if you are going to show it to others, then you educate those that get the opportunity to see your altar,” said Cabral.

Cabral made mention of the Pixar movie as a good illustration for showing the various aspects of the tradition as well as the meaning behind it: to remember your loved ones. This is the reason people put up altars, said Cabral. Loved ones who are not remembered will experience a second death because they will disappear in people’s hearts and memories.

“Of course, it’s okay to shed some tears on that day,” said Cabral. “I kept saying celebration and party and festival, but the idea is to – at least for me – think of all the great times with those loved ones, with those dear friends who have passed. At least for me, there’s a lot more smiling and laughter and dancing and things like that than anything else because I want to have a great time with them, while they are here visiting.”

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