UNC opens the month with annual Dia de los Muertos celebration

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UNC’s Dia de los Muertos celebration included colorful altars meant to pay tribute to loved ones. Photo courtesy of Ydrenni Caparachini.

Students, faculty and guests celebrated the annual Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” on Oct. 30, which is a day when Latinx cultures honor their deceased family and friends. The event was supported two major contributors, the University of Northern Colorado’s Mexican American Studies Society and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

This event has been hosted at UNC every year since 1998. Priscilla Falcon, a professor of Hispanic studies and the adviser for LULAC, started it. This year, guests gathered in the Panorama Room at the University Center, but because attendance continues to grow, Falcon said she thinks they will be able to hold the event in the ballrooms next year.

Jonathan Alcántar, an assistant professor for Mexican American studies and the adviser for MASS, attended to support his students and the club.

“It’s a celebration of our culture, and it’s something we need today more than ever,” Alcántar said. “These type of events are inclusive of not only the Mexican American community, but of everyone on campus.”

Día de los Muertos, traditionally celebrated on Nov. 1, has been around since pre-Columbian times. The Aztecs celebrated the holiday over three thousand years before the Spanish came to Mexico, but rather than erasing it, Día de los Muertos took on some of the Catholic traditions of the Spanish.

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In order to incorporate the Aztec origins of the holiday, Adeleine Santos, the diverse events coordinator for the University Program Council, invited native dancers to perform for the guests. Grupo Tlaloc Danza Azteca has worked to preserve the native dancing traditions since the 1980s. The group has even performed alongside Selena Quintanilla, a well-known and respected artist in the Latinx community.

“Latinx” is a gender-neutral and culturally inclusive term that connects people of Hispanic, Chicano, Latino and other similar cultures. The Aztec dance group performed several dances, each one with a different meaning, including a friendship dance and a dance that honored their elders.

After their performance, the lead Aztec dancer explained the significance of the decorated altars – or “ofrendas” – that lined the walls of the room. Altars are often decorated with photos of loved ones who have passed, items and food they loved in life, candles to light their way, and marigolds to attract their spirits.

Water is also important, because without water, there is no life. “Papel picado” is another common decoration, which is thin, colorful paper with beautiful designs and patterns. These are usually hung high, because it is believed that when they move, it’s a spirit making its presence known.

During this explanation, one dancer went around the room blessing altars by burning copal resin, also referred to as “tears of the tree.” This type of blessing is used to purify the mind, body and spirit.

Students from Greeley Central High School set up most of the altars around the room. Last year, the Mexican American studies program integrated a MAS 100 class into the high school’s curriculum. Tom Frasier, the MAS teacher at the high school, said 70 percent of the students at the school identify as Mexican American.

“It reaffirms how important history and culture is in the United States,” Frasier said. “[My students] do a lot of work that connects them to college life.”

Groups of students presented their altars in English and in other Latin-based languages. Some groups covered topics such as the significance of the skull masks and the history of Día de los Muertos. Other groups honored deceased Latinx figures, like Quintanilla, Frida Kahlo and Cesar Chavez.

LULAC and MASS also set up their own altars and provided information about their organizations for guests and interested students. Ashley Amaro Martinez, the president of MASS, explained how some faculty has helped its members in and out of classes.

“Falcon gets us connected,” Martinez said. “Dr. Alcántar helps us be involved in the community.”

The celebration ended with a special surprise for Falcon, because her birthday is during the same week. MASS members invited the audience to sing along to “Las Mañanitas” by Pedro Infante, which is a traditional Mexican birthday song.

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