Día de los muertos praises cultural heritage

Despite rain, La Raza Student Union organizes celebration

The scent of copal, a tree resin, filled the air as La Raza Student Union huddled under the gazebo last Monday evening outside the Applied Arts Building to shelter from the rain for Día de los Muertos to remember loved ones through prayers and a virtual altar.

Celebrated in Mexico and throughout Latin America, Día de los Muertos brings family and friends together to celebrate the holiday through fiestas, prayers and ofrendas (offerings).

“Día de los Muertos is a day for us to remember our roots, our family, ancestors, and to share stories about them,” La Raza studies professor Agustin Palacios said.

The cultural traditions include decorating altares or altars, with candles, flowers, food and pictures as well as keeping it lively with music and the burning of the ceremonial incense, known as copal from the copal tree.

As Danza Azteca Cuauhtonal, a ritualistic Aztec dance group from Oakland joined the estimated 30 attendees, there was a change in the agenda due to the weather.

“We wanted an outside event. We even thought about canceling because it was supposedly going to rain,” Dr. Palacios said. “On the bright side, at least we’re not dead.”

Danza Azteca Cuauhtonal requested that the altar be completed before they began.

“For the dancers it is a spiritual thing. They dance out of respect,” Palacios said.

“We are going to do something never done before. Everyone, take out your phones,” Palacios said.

Palacios suggested attendees find a picture of someone they wished to remember to put on the altar.

Among the people celebrated on the virtual altar were father Óscar Romero, Maya Angelou, family members and other loved ones of the students.

Claudia Morales, psychology major said, “I have a friend, an uncle, a family friend who I am celebrating.”

Morales said she celebrated Día de los Muertos when she lived in Mexico and through the event was able to connect with her roots.

While the attendees finished decorating the altar, Danza Azteca Cuauhtonal recited a prayer in silence.

Adding to the comfort of the attendants, hot chocolate and pan de muertos (bread of the dead) was provided while music played in the background.

Due to rain restrictions, members of Danza Azteca Cuauhtonal held off the scheduled dancing and gathered for an intimate evening of prayer.

To initiate the ceremony, Danza Azteca Cuauhtonal played a tune on a conch shell to show their gratitude for the four elements: earth, wind, water and fire, Danza Azteca Cuauhtonal leader Cristina Mariscal said.

Everyone gathered in a circle and named who they wish to keep in their prayers.

“I want to remember those who died due to social injustices,” LRSU President Maria Lara said. A Cempasúchil flower went around the group and the smoky copal burned throughout the cozy ceremony. 

Cempasúchil flowers, known as the flor de muertos (flower of the dead) are placed on the altar for decorative purposes.

Mariscal said the 20 petal flower carries a “pungent” smell.

Known in the U.S.  as “Mari Gold,” the flower carries deep roots in Mexican culture.

For the LRSU celebrating Día de los Muertos has been a tradition carried throughout its years of activity on campus.

It brings culture and celebrates heritage while fostering a sense of community.

Palacios said other cultures celebrate Día de los Muertos in their own way, some connecting on a spiritual level.

“We (also) celebrate Day of the Dead and Halloween. There is nothing wrong with that,” he said.

Ricardo Sanchez, engineering major, said, “We want to show our culture, so we planned this event because it was the right opportunity.”