Swarthmore Students Celebrate Día de los Muertos
by Jessica Hernandez
On November 1st, 2017, continuing with the programming of Latinx Heritage Month (LHM), the LHM Committee planned a celebration for Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead.
Originating in Mexico, this holiday was created in remembrance of family members, ancestors, and others who have passed away. On this day, it is believed that the spirits of the dead come back and visit the living for a short time. To honor the deceased on Día de los Muertos, individuals set up altars, decorating them with vibrant colors, cempasúchil flowers, sugar skulls, pan de muerto, and other traditional food and drinks. Rather than mourn the loss of life, this holiday calls individual to rejoice as they remember the vivid lives of those who have passed away and have returned to join the living and celebration Día de los Muertos.
This past Wednesday, Miryam Ramirez ’21, Karen Avila ’20, Lali Pizarro ’20, Taty Hernandez ’19, and Erick Gutierrez ’19 collaborated to create their very own Día de los Muertos, sharing the holiday with the rest of the Swarthmore community. The main components of the celebration included a community altar and craft-making session in the Intercultural Center (IC), and “taking over” Paces Café, revamping the menu to include pan dulce, Mexican hot chocolate, and a dish with rice, beans, and chicken.
The night started at 7pm in the IC, where students gathered to admire the community altar. Adorned with colored skulls, Mexican marigold flowers, and a plethora of tissue paper decorations, the altar displayed photos of deceased loved ones and prominent Latinx figures, all submitted by Swat students.
“Día de los Muertos is very important to me,” remarked Diana Martinez ’20 as she sipped on mango juice and grabbed a piece of pan de muerto. She mentioned that her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have celebrated the holiday in the past, then specifically mentioned her mother’s description of Día de los Muertos in Mexico. “She would tell us about the decorations, the altar, the food, the bread, and how they would leave out a bottle of my uncle’s favorite tequila for his spirit.”
When asked if she contributed any photos to the altar, Martinez pointed out pictures of her great-grandparents, and even gave a little history behind the photo her great-grandfather, revealing that “the photo on the altar is actually his picture from the Bracero program.” Upon talking about her ancestors and their generational presence in the United States, Martinez was in awe. “It’s kind of surreal. I can’t believe they came here, and because of them I’m here. And now the pictures of my ancestors are on this altar, in the IC, in an institution like Swarthmore; an institution that was never meant for them.” Martinez’s comment highlights that not only does this holiday serve as a celebration of those before us, but also as a reminder of their lives, experiences, sacrifices, and the everlasting impact on those who came after them.
One of the main organizers of the IC event, Taty Hernandez ’19, spoke about the actual set-up of the altar as she decorated own paper mache skull. “We gathered pictures from students, decorations from South Philly, but we also made a Día de los Muertos board for those affected by natural disasters.” Building on the theme of expanding the scope of the holiday, Hernandez mentioned a shared desire between her and other students to make this year’s celebration of the dead a bigger event than it has been in the past, which was clear with the partnership between the IC and Paces Café.
After allotting a space to reflect, eat, and craft, the next stop for this LHM program was even more eating in Paces Café, for the Día de los Muertos takeover.
Before Paces Café officially opened for the night, organizers Karen Avila ’20 and Miryam Ramirez ’21 were seen decorating the space with various streams of skull decorations and Latinx flags. Calling Día de los Muertos “a significant, beautiful, important holiday,” Avila mentioned that this event was partly focused on “closure,” since it was a time for “celebrating and honoring family both alive and dead.” Avila also noted that there was a personal aspect of Wednesday night’s event. “This is closure for me, as a Latina away from home, where we would have had pan dulce and calacas pintadas (painted skulls), and an altar.”
The food chosen for the Paces Takeover came from a traditional Latinx background. Avila mentioned “rice, chicken, beans is a staple food in Latin cuisine—and it was the simplest to cook while representing Latinx culture” and joked that she and others wouldn’t have had enough time to make mole, tacos, or tamales. Although there were moments of stress and misunderstanding, such as having precooked chicken and thus unable to season it to their liking, and having the wrong kind of beans, Avila declared “it was a recipe for disaster that turned into a potion for love—love of myself, my LHM team, my culture, and my home.”
For many at Swarthmore, Día de los Muertos at Swarthmore gave insight into Latinx holidays, fostered social interaction among students, and evoked personal reactions from those who participated, all while serving its ultimate purpose of remembering those we have lost, but whose presence we still feel around us everyday.