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A&M-San Antonio community brings Dia de los Muertos to life

A celebration of life and death, Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, originated in Mexico. The holiday, which spans Nov. 1-2, has spread to other Latin American countries and U.S. cities such as San Antonio.

This campus will celebrate, too. The Mexican American Student Association is hosting a Dia de los Muertos event 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1 in the courtyard of the Central Academic Building at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

The celebration includes pan dulce and other refreshments, a matachin dance performance by Grupo de Oracion from St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church and music by Mariachi Toritos, said MASA President Claudia Martinez Garcia.

It also will feature an indigenous blessing of MASA’s Dia de los Muertos altar, currently on display in the first-floor rotunda of the Central Academic Building.

“This year’s celebration is very different from anything we’ve had in the past,” Garcia said. “We have a record number of active members in the organization, and we are expecting a great turnout, which is why we had to move the celebration to the courtyard.”

The founding members of MASA launched their annual event in 2015, Garcia said. The celebration began as a small gathering inside the CAB rotunda where Danza Azteca Kalpulli Ameyatonal performed traditional dances and blessed the altar while community members shared stories about deceased loved ones.

“It is important to host events such as this one on campus so that our student body can learn about our cultura, connect to their roots and the history of the land, as well as reflect on the lives of those that came before us,” Garcia said.

Holiday is not ‘Mexican Halloween’

Dia de los Muertos honors loved ones who have died, which is something people from all backgrounds and cultures can commemorate, said Garcia, a history senior.

“I think anyone is able to celebrate death the way we do during Dia de Los Muertos, as long as you do so in a respectful manner to where you’re not poking fun at death, but rather embracing it,” she said.

The holiday takes place during All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Common symbols include skeletons and calaveras, or skulls.

“You will see that some people, including children, will paint their face and dress up like skeletons for the event,” said Chris Sosa, an MBA student. “This just emphasizes the idea that we are all just skeletons underneath, despite our differences, and it connects us all in a way.”

Although commonly misidentified as the “Mexican version of Halloween,” the intent of Dia de Los Muertos is not to be scary, but rather celebratory of death and those who have died.

Garcia said, “It’s gotten a lot of attention in mainstream media, and I hope movies like ‘Coco’ help represent it in its proper way rather than comparing it to Halloween.”

Food, altars honor ancestors

Another tradition is a bread called pan de muerto.

Chico’s Bakery on South Zarzamora Street sells various types of pan dulce, but owner Michelle Moreno said pan de muerto is a big deal right now.

Moreno said they typically start making the bread the first week of October so customers know they can buy it at her shop. The bakery also caters its baked goods to the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s celebration of Dia De Los Muertos.

To individuals who partake in traditional festivities like decorating, eating pan de muerto, drinking and remembering those who have died, the Day of the Dead places importance upon people.

“It’s a very emotional holiday that gives you hope for the afterlife,” Garcia said.

Celebrants build homemade altars and decorate them with photographs and “ofrendas,” or offerings to the deceased loved one. Ofrendas could be anything from a pack of cigarettes to an ancestor’s favorite food.

Aida Almanza, arts and sciences librarian, said her family celebrates Dia de los Muertos by putting up an altar and decorating with flowers and pictures of relatives.

Maura, a campus fitness employee who preferred not to share her last name, said she always lights a candle with pictures of family members.

“My grandma makes my grandpa’s favorite dish of enchiladas and delivers it to his grave with white and red flowers on the gravestone and she cleans his grave site,” Maura said.

Sosa said the holiday is a palpable experience.

“The thing about Dia de Los Muertos is that you could recognize it just off its atmosphere,” Sosa said. “The smell of sweetness from the flowers and pan de muerto, the taste of the tamales and foods and the liquor of course to celebrate the life of those who you will see pictures of.”

Sosa has envisoned how loved ones might celebrate after he is gone.

“I hope that when my time comes, my family will celebrate my life and have reminders of me on my altar, like my love of movies, music, family, a bottle of Jameson, Jack Daniels and Coke and cigars,” Sosa said.

Kayla Garcia, a computer information systems senior, said her family celebrates with music and food. They share memories of ancestors with the younger children. They fill altars with pictures, candles, figurines and, most important, sweets — most family members had or have a sweet tooth, she said.

“I don’t celebrate for vanity’s sake or because it looks cool, or because of a Disney movie,” she said. “I celebrate because I miss my grandparents, uncle and aunt as well others before them that have passed, and I wish I could see them one last time.”

Prayers are important to Garcia and others. Joe John Rodriguez Jr, a prep cook at Chartwells, said he honors deceased relatives by saying a 15-minute prayer with a picture of the person in front of him. Rodriguez feels like the skulls of Dia de los Muertos are like tombstones: “Every specific person has their own color; the skull represents that person.”

Betty Dovalina, owner of Betty’s Flower Shop on Southwest Military Drive, said she occasionally gets custom orders for altars. However, she actually gets more requests for wedding arrangements with a Dia de los Muertos theme, even one where she worked calaveras into a bouquet.

Guadalupe plans party Nov. 2

Jorge Pina, a director at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, is helping to organize a block party the center is hosting for Dia De Los Muertos.

It will take place from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Nov. 2 in the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center parking lot and all down El Paso Street. There will be designated booths on how to make masks, sugar skulls, face painting and more. It will also feature dancers and mariachis.

Pina said it is important to mark Dia de los Muertos “to celebrate la cultura,” a culture that some have tried to oppress, and he wants the community to celebrate it to the fullest extent.

Most of all, the holiday celebrates love, Kayla Garcia said.

“It’s important to celebrate because it’s a way to keep loving those who have passed,” she said. “This time helps with that; you’ll know that they feel loved even though you can’t speak to them directly.”

Contributors to this story are Miguel Alcorn, Jesse Eureste, Lauren Elisse Sanchez and Armando Villarreal.

About the Author

Alexandria Vigil
Alexandria Vigil
Alexandria Vigil is a senior psychology major with a minor in communication at Texas A&M University San Antonio. She works as a peer adviser at Palo Alto College and will be the first in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree. Her interests include the arts, writing, design and travel. She aspires to be involved within non-profit organizations or within higher education engaging with people and making a difference in her community.

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