The Student Union ballroom was decorated with colorful tissue paper flowers and cut paper decorations, called papel picado. Tables throughout the room held bright posters with facts about the holiday and one wall served as a photo booth where students tried on skull masks and sombreros.
Students and faculty mingled while chatting and eating tamales. Groups of students painted masks and crafted their own paper flowers and papel picado. An animated short film about La Catrina, the “godmother of death” played during the festivities.
A communal ofrenda, also known as an altar, stood at the back of the room. Here, students and faculty displayed pictures of loved ones who had passed away as well as candles and decorative skulls.
“I’m Dominican and there, death is treated the same way as it is in America. It’s sad and serious,” said Armstrong alumna and current admissions counselor, Stephanie Molina.
Dia de los Muertos originated in Mexico and Central America as a Meso-American holiday. One of the organizers of the event, Elizabeth de la Peña, explained “The Spanish believe there are three deaths: when your heart stops beating, when your body goes into the earth, and when people stop remembering you. Dia de los Muertos is about making sure that third death doesn’t happen,”
On Dia de los Muertos, it is believed that the veil is lifted between the living and the dead and that spirits of the dead come back to Earth to visit. The “ofrenda” is an offering to welcome these spirits. The offerings represent the four elements: water, wind, fire and earth. The water is for the spirits, who will be parched from their travel. The wind is represented by the holes in the papel picado, the candles represent fire, and earth is represented by bread.
Often, family members will supplement the bread with their loved ones’ favorite food or drink. Coca-Cola products, Doritos and canned green beans sat on the communal ofrenda during the event. On this day people will visit the graves of their loved ones and decorate them. They then trail a “river of marigolds” from the cemetery to the altars in their homes to guide the spirits’ path.
“This is not a day that is meant to be sad or scary,” says De la Peña. “It is not like Halloween. It is about celebrating both life and death. It is very artistic. It’s about living life to the fullest and recognizing that this is a cycle. We’re all going the same way, but love transcends life and death.”