Día De Los Muertos at Barrett downtown is more than colorful flowers and candy sugar skulls

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November 4, 2019

On the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 30, students, staff and community members gathered at the downtown campus’s Mercado plaza to celebrate, eat, learn, and remember loved ones who have passed at Barrett downtown’s celebration of Día De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. 

Organized by project coordinator R.G. Esquer, the event featured dancers from El Instituto de Folklor Mexicano, live music by Mariachi Phoenix, tamales, burritos, tacos and tortilla chips from Carolina’s Mexican Food, calavera face painting, an ofrenda and a speech delivered by Barrett faculty fellow and Día De Los Muertos scholar Dr. Mathew Sandoval.

Sandoval, who has celebrated the holiday for nearly 15 years and studied it from a scholarly perspective for three, offered his knowledge of the holiday to attendees in order to give historical context for the event. 

Once the mariachi music and dancing ended and the food was picked over, Sandoval invited everyone to move from their tables and gather together to emphasize the sense of community created by the event, before giving his speech.

He described the history of Día De Los Muertos, which dates back to 1200 BCE, before explaining to attendees the meaning of inviting those who have passed on back with them, and recalling the memories shared with them.

Sandoval stressed the idea that remembering the dead doesn’t have to be a sad, somber practice, and encouraged listeners to celebrate the lives of those who have passed. “To live life at all is always to lose somebody,” Sandoval said.

In his personal life, Sandoval celebrates Día De Los Muertos annually by creating an altar, or ofrenda, to remember those in his life who have passed. Sandoval is also beginning to pass the tradition to his niece and nephew. 

“I want to help give it to them, that way they can continue it so it's kind of restarting this new lineage,” he said.

Sandoval attends numerous public celebrations each year, traveling to events in southern California, Tucson and Phoenix with the goal of tracking the transformation of the event.  

“One of the things that I'm writing about in terms of my scholarship is trying to understand the way that it's transformed, especially in these last several decades from being more or less a cultural and religious event to being popular culture, which has come about because Day of the Dead stuff has just become more popularized,” Sandoval said.

Bringing a more comprehensive understanding of the holiday to attendees was a main goal of the event. When planning the event, Esquer wanted to welcome those of both Mexican and non-Mexican heritage to engage in a way that was based on the authentic meaning of the holiday rather than the Americanized conception of it, shaped by pop-culture. 

“The entire night is really just more or less about connecting with each other, connecting with those who have passed, allowing for their stories to be told again, inviting them back into the space, if you will, and then just creating memories in general. So, learning about the celebration is one thing, but really engaging and partaking is what we're aiming for,” Esquer said.

The Barrett event and other community celebrations of Día De Los Muertos give some Mexican Americans the chance to re-engage with a part of their culture that was lost through what Sandoval called “breakages in assimilation processes” when coming from Mexico to America.

“Americanizing means giving up a lot of your culture and your history, so it wasn't something that I would say was passed down from generation to generation then it arrived to me. It was more something that I found, and then brought back into my own family,” Sandoval said.

This generational and cultural disconnect is not unique to Sandoval and his celebration of the holiday. Many Mexican Americans, including Esquer and other attendees of the Barrett event, did not grow up celebrating Día De Los Muertos, but began observing the holiday as adults.

“I actually grew up in a Mexican household that didn't celebrate Día De Los Muertos, but it wasn't until about a year or two ago that I actually started to learn more about it, started to go to ceremonies and celebrations for Day of the Dead,” Esquer said. “My friends and I like to celebrate it. We've kind of adopted the holiday, if you will.”

For others, the event served as a reminder of the importance and beauty of a holiday they grew up with. 

“This definitely means a lot to me. It reminds me of home a lot of the time and it takes me back to my roots and reminds me, hey, this is your culture and you should be proud of it,” Alexandra Mora Medina, a junior journalism major, said.

Mora Medina’s practice of remembering the dead is much bigger than the celebration of Día De Los Muertos, which spans just Nov. 1 and 2. She and her family pay their respects to family members who have passed throughout the year, on birthdays and days of death, to acknowledge the importance of family.

This remembrance often includes creating altars for the dead and placing their pictures, as well as anything that connects to a particular memory of the person who has passed, on them. For some, it serves as a way to invite the spirits of the dead back.

“The altar really is the heart of the entire holiday. It's just remembering it and bringing the dead back to life and just remembering that your family members aren’t ever really dead. They're always there, and to continue that legacy of making your family proud,” said Mora Medina.

Naomi Galloway, a junior medical studies major, accompanied Mora Medina to the event. As someone who doesn’t celebrate the holiday, Galloway appreciated learning about its history and cultural significance.

“A lot of times for cultures that are underrepresented nobody really talks about the history, they just talk about the people who took over the history I guess, so it's really good for everybody to learn something new about it so they know what actually occurred,” Galloway said.

Sandoval acknowledges that it is important to remember that though the holiday is aesthetically attractive, or trendy, it is not a new thing, but rather a deeply rooted part of Latino culture.

“[The holiday] has had to live through genocide, has had to live through modernization, has had to live through border crossings, all of these things which is to say, a lot of violence for us to have it inherited it,” Sandoval said.

Ultimately, the Barrett celebration of Día De Los Muertos was an opportunity to learn more about the holiday than the perception widely shared in popular culture. Not only is Día De Los Muertos full of color, rich food, music and dance, it is a chance to connect with the dead in a very personal way.

“It's kind of it's true what Dr. Sandoval was saying that it's that spark of remembering. That they still live on with you, they live within you, and you kind of remind yourself that they're always there. It's just a beautiful thing,” said Mora Medina.


Story by Greta Forslund, a Barrett Honors College student majoring in journalism.

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