The dead are honored guests at Chico State’s Día de los Muertos celebration
According to Aztec legend, there was once a boy named Xochitl and a girl named Huitzilin who spent their childhood together exploring the wilderness surrounding their village in the country now known as Mexico. As they grew older, their friendship transformed into a great love, which was tragically cut short when Xochitl was killed in battle.
Upon hearing the news, the grief-stricken Huitzilin made her way to the top of a nearby mountain, where, as children, the couple had gathered cempasúchil flowers—marigolds—to offer to the Aztec sun god, Tonatiuh. This was also the place they first declared their undying love for one another. There, Huitzilin implored the god to reunite her with her lover. Her prayers were heard and she was transformed into a cempasúchil, while Xochitl was returned as a hummingbird, so that their love would endure as long as flowers and birds coexist.
That, according to culture and travel website Inside Mexico and other sources, is how the marigold became known as la flor de muerto, the flower of death. Its vibrant colors and pungent scent are said to be so strong they can act as a beacon to lead the departed back to the world of the living. This makes them an essential part of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, when the living in Mexico and some other Hispanic countries traditionally pay homage to their dead ancestors.
The flowers will be found in abundance at Chico State’s Trinity Commons on Nov. 2, embellishing handmade altars, known as altares, alongside other traditional decorations and pictures of those who have passed. The school has held Día de los Muertos celebrations annually since 2000, and in recent years the event—which will also feature live mariachi music, dancing by Ballet Folklórico de Chico, traditional food and much more—has been hosted by the college’s chapters of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) and Latino fraternity Nu Alpha Kappa (NAK).
Sociology student Jessica Godinez, who serves as MEChA’s gender and inclusivity officer, and Sergio Herrera, a criminal justice major and NAK’s director of programs, are the student organizers of this year’s event. Both have early memories of Día de los Muertos.
Godinez, who is of Mexican and Salvadoran descent, grew up in the Bay Area but remembers in her youth visiting the graveyard in El Salvador where her grandparents are buried. Family members brought her grandma’s favorite meal, grandfather’s favorite shoes and cempasúchiles to “give them a path to join us that day.” Herrera, who grew up in Southern California, remembers his grandparents putting out pan de muerto and calaveras (“bread of the dead” and sugar skulls, respectively), lighting candles and praying to honor their parents.
Both said the Chico State event is about education—as well as fun—and said one of the goals is to counter the common misconception that Día de los Muertos is, as Godinez put it, “Mexican Halloween.”
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about what the day really is, and there’s significance and symbolism to everything involved,” she said, citing skull-faced makeup as an example. The face-painting and decorated skulls that are symbols of the holiday are both references to Calavera Catrina, an early 20th century artistic rendering of an “elegant skull,” which has since taken on a life of its own in Mexican culture, including as “Catrina makeup.” “People wear it on Halloween without understanding it’s very specific to Día de los Muertos.”
Another purpose of the event is to connect newer students with campus clubs and organizations, several of which participate in the event by making altars. Hererra noted several Greek organizations are participating, as are the Gender and Sexuality Equity Center and other groups.
In addition to the aforementioned performers, this year’s celebration also will feature a troupe of danzantes Aztecas from the Los Angeles area, who dress in traditional Aztec garb and dance and pray to open and close the event, and to bless each altar.
Students from Rosedale Elementary and other schools will visit during the day to learn about the holiday, and the main activities—like live entertainment and free traditional food—will take place in the evening.
Gerardo Mireles, a Spanish lecturer and MEChA adviser at Chico State, offered some more background on the history and cultural significance of the holiday. He explained that indigenous peoples of central and southern Mexico and northern Central America celebrated the holiday for 10 to 12 centuries before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.
“As Christianity came, all the pagan celebrations were no longer accepted,” he said, explaining that indigenous celebrations lasted several days, but the Catholic calendar only allowed All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2—now the day that Mexico celebrates Día de los Muertos—as a day to honor one’s own ancestors. He said the holiday has evolved over time and the trappings most people now associate with the day—like altars and offerings to the dead—are primarily derived from Mexico’s southern regions and neighboring countries.
He also noted that, while celebrating the dead is one aspect of the holiday, it serves other purposes as well. For one, it provides the living with hope: “When people see or perceive they can be honored and remembered after they’re gone, it speaks to the idea that we do have something to look forward to after death,” he said.
Finally, part of the tradition is to mock death itself.
“In Mexico and other places, the Angel of Death is represented by the reaper. Dressing as skeletons and eating candy skulls, which traditionally had the person’s own name written on them, are ways we can look into the face of death and say, ‘I’m not afraid of you.’”