Celebrating culture, the dead

Student groups host Día de los Muertos festivities to educate, commemorate

Hundreds of people turned out to celebrate Dia de los Muertos on the Chico State campus Monday (Nov. 2). Many wore face paint, lit candles and decorated elaborate altars in honor of lost loved ones.

Hundreds of people turned out to celebrate Dia de los Muertos on the Chico State campus Monday (Nov. 2). Many wore face paint, lit candles and decorated elaborate altars in honor of lost loved ones.

Photo by Emily Teague

Holiday symbology:
Calaveras and sugar skulls: Represent those who passed away
Cempazúchitl (marigold flowers): Guides for spirits to enter the mortal world
Candles: Help the dead to find their way home
Food and beverages: Favorite food or drink from the loved one's used as an offering to welcome them
Papel picado: Perforated paper representing a connection between life and death

A large crowd huddled together, holding vigil candles under the southeast corner of Chico State’s Meriam Library. It was a chilly evening, and puffs of breath were visible as those gathered stood in silence to commemorate lost loved ones. It was Nov. 2—Día de los Muertos.

In solemn tones, participants shared names of friends and family members who had died, interspersed with murmurs of sorrow. The candles reflected warm orange hues on faces in the crowd as it followed a six-member mariachi band to a stretch of altars, each typically containing a photo of the deceased being remembered, along with favorite foods and items they cherished, cempazúchitl flowers, candles, papel picado and sugar skulls. The band, wearing black charro suits, started with “Amor Eterno,” a classic at Mexican funerals, and played different songs at each altar.

Greek organizations presented numerous decorated altars during Día de los Muertos. This year is the second that Nu Alpha Kappa, a Latino fraternity, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) collaborated to share the Latin American celebration of life and death with the university and greater community. There are 26 chapters of NAK throughout California, Nevada and Colorado, and each hosts its own Día de los Muertos celebration.

Events like Día de los Muertos are important for Latino students on campus, says Teresita Curiel, interim assistant director of Hispanic Service Institution initiatives at Chico State.

“Some are very much embedded in their culture when they come here,” she said. “For others, it’s an opportunity to develop themselves in that respect.”

It’s commonly assumed that all Latinos are well-versed in their culture, but some are still learning, Curiel says. That’s why it’s encouraging to see Latino-oriented events on campus that help students understand where they come from.

Curiel’s position was created to help the university become federally designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). The first step is to have an enrollment of at least 25 percent Latino students. The university met that number exactly in fall 2014 and has since surpassed it—28.5 percent of the student body today describe themselves as Latino. Curiel’s responsibility is to gather information and conduct focus groups to understand how an HSI label will improve the experience of Latino students.

In a time when diversity is rising, cultural sensitivity seems to be the biggest concern at events such as Día de los Muertos. For Luis Tiznado, community service and event coordinator for NAK, the event was meant to make new students feel at home and to stop offensive stereotypes during holidays.

“That’s what we aim to do,” he said, “make sure that the Latino students and those who feel a cultural shock feel welcomed on this day and [feel] a sense of belonging.”

Tiznado experienced culture shock when he moved to Chico from San Diego in 2012, mainly because of the difference in Latino demographics, he said. Cultural events from the fraternity and other campus organizations helped him feel more comfortable, and he wants to do the same for new students.

As far as fighting stereotypes, Tiznado hopes educating people about other cultures will help. He recalls his first year at Chico State and being upset at the sight of white students wearing sombreros during Halloween and other festivities like César Chávez Day.

He instantly took offense, but said he didn’t know how to approach the situation until his sophomore year, when he started confronting offenders and letting them know their costumes were offensive to his culture. By his junior year, he was actively going to classes and explaining to people why it’s offensive. Now as a senior, he helps put on events like Día de los Muertos through NAK, intending to make learning fun and interesting.

“It’s a lecture outside of the classroom,” he said.

About 250-300 people participated in this year’s Día de los Muertos, despite it raining from morning to afternoon—plus there were about 80 volunteers who stood by their altars in hopes of protecting them from the rain. That evening, however, a strong thunderstorm rolled through, and the event was put on hold until it passed—speakers and equipment were taken down from Trinity Commons and taken inside, canopies with colorful papel picado were lowered to keep decorations safe, and the team took cover to reorganize the rest of the evening’s events. The ballet folklorico and danzantes performances were canceled due to the wet grass.

“The mariachi made the event so lively and singing to the altars was a plus,” said María García, community planner for MEChA. “Overall, the weather didn’t kill my spirits. Knowing the community still came through for this significant holiday event is what overshadowed all setbacks I felt throughout the day.”

For Maritza Zulema Ortiz, it didn’t matter that it was raining. She was born in Mexico, where she says families often stay at a cemetery through such inclement weather in order to celebrate the dead. She’s a sister at Zeta Sigma Chi Multicultural Sorority Inc. who was there to pay respect to family members who had passed away recently and a dear friend who died at age 15.

Her sorority sister, Melissa Padilla, is also Hispanic and was honoring victims of police brutality. The media give attention to those deaths, she said, “but one thing moves to the next and we don’t focus back to it. So I’m trying to commemorate them and show them the respect that they deserve.”

At home in San Francisco, Padilla doesn’t celebrate Día de los Muertos, she said, but doing so at Chico State gives her a chance to get in touch with her roots.

“I really like to come here because it’s like another part of my heritage that I don’t get too close with,” she said. “It’s interesting because here [in the United States] it’s taboo to talk about death, so I like how we bring it out and show that it’s OK.”