Gone physically, here spiritually: Dia de los Muertos embraces death through celebration and tasty foods

Kenya Hurd paints the faces of Mextli Palacios and Obed Aguirre. Photo by Leta Howell
Kenya Hurd paints the faces of Mextli Palacios and Obed Aguirre. Photo by Leta Howell

The Diversity Achievement Center held its annual “Dia de los Muertos” event in honor of the traditional ceremony that’s been held in central and southern Mexico for nearly 3,000 years.

On the day of Halloween, the altar (la ofrenda) was set up on the left side of the room for people to stop in and honor their loved ones with pictures and mementos. On November 1, the DAC opened its doors at 10 a.m. for people to celebrate and become a little more educated about the tradition.

According to tradition, Dia de los Muertos takes place during the very first days of November. The first day is reserved for the spirits of children, los niños,  who left their families far too early, while the second day observes the spirits of the rest of loved ones who’ve passed.

Celebrations themselves vary in tone, but can be on the more humorous side when recalling memories and the person’s essence. Much like at American gravesites, loved ones offer flowers, particularly Marigolds: a traditional mourning flower symbolizing the forces of the sun and life.

But unlike the US, they embrace this holiday as a period of time in which the spirits come back to Earth. The purpose of this altar is to honor and

Obed Aguirre shows off his sugar skull painted by the colleges theatre director Dan Stone.
Obed Aguirre shows off his sugar skull painted by the colleges theatre director Dan Stone. Photo by Leta Howell

remember your loved one through senses between their favorite smells and foods, or even simple mementos that once were theirs.

This year, face painting was done by Linn Benton’s theater director Dan Stone, who naturally had a more theatrical take on his faces, and psychology major Keyna Hurd, who went for more of a makeup look by using an unused eyeshadow pallet along with the provided paints. The face paint phenomena is a newer tradition that’s done instead of wearing masks. Either way, the tradition is there to symbolize the embracing of death and chaos in our lives.

Alongside the face decoration and offering table, the DAC included spicy hot chocolate, pan de muerto (“dead bread”), and tamales as part of their celebration. Participants could also take the time to paint sugar skulls, which were literally made of granulated sugar.

Among the people getting their faces painted was Javier Cervantes, the Director of the Department of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, who was just as much a participant as he was the “host” of the celebration.

“Dia de los Muertos is an opportunity to remember those who are with us in a spiritual realm. It’s my favorite time of the year, because it’s the one to two days we dedicate to bring back our loved ones with food and pictures,” he said.

He also discussed the essential differences between the United States’ cultural outlook on death versus the outlook of Dia de los Muertos celebrators.

“In American culture, we do celebrate death with sadness. We avoid talking about it; it’s a sensitive subject that sometimes is even seen as morbid. We avoid it. But in other cultures, we talk about it all the time, even daily. The irony of life is that the more we live, the closer we are to coming to our death. It’s the funniest part of the duality of your existence,” said Cervantes.

To clarify, he’s not exactly looking forward to dying.

“We aren’t looking forward to death, but we can embrace it. [With Dia de los Muertos,] we want to remember our loved ones through the altar.”

And with tasty foods and lots of fun activities, embracing death is not something to mourn over, but something truly worth celebrating.

Life (and death) is truly what you make of.

Story by Morgan Connelly

Photos by Leta Howell