By Analiese Grohalski
The Division of Multicultural Affairs and the Spanish Department celebrated one of the oldest Hispanic traditions, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), in Trimpe Hall from Monday to Wednesday.
The festivities of Day of the Dead last from Oct. 31 until Nov. 2 each year, when it is believed that the souls of the dead visits their families. As celebrated in Mexican culture, an altar was set up in remembrance of someone deceased. This year, the altar was dedicated to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who was born in 1648 in a village near Mexico City.
“She was the best woman poet from the seventeenth century,” said Mike Ramirez, assistant director of the Division of Multicultural Affairs.
The Division of Multicultural Affairs and the Spanish Department have been celebrating Day of the Dead at Western Michigan University for 10 years, according to Ramirez.
“This is the only public setting of an altar,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said he heard of another public altar at a local church, however, it is designated more toward the church congregation.
Most museums have an exhibit for La Dia de los Muertos, he said.
“It brings awareness to culture, in particular the Latino culture,” Ramirez said.
There are about 400 Latino students on campus, so it’s good to bring the traditions to campus, he said.
“It was a real eye-opener,” WMU senior Doug Wiggins said. “It’s really different.”
The tradition of Day of the Dead dates back thousands of years, Ramirez said. The Aztec people would have a festival at the end of harvest to remember those who died and used it as a way to poke fun at death.
Day of the Dead happened to be around the same time as All Saints Day, according to Ramirez. When the Spanish came over after Columbus, a fusion of the two holidays occurred.
“It is entirely different from Halloween,” Ramirez said, gesturing to the altar. “This is for you (those on the altar). It’s two days were we’re going to remember you.”
The altars are typically set up with seven layers, coming from the Aztec belief that it takes a soul seven steps to reach heaven, with the picture of the loved one on the top layer. The altar is also adorned with brightly colored flowers, candles, water, plates of the favorite food of the deceased, candied skulls, pan de los muertos (bread of the dead) and personal items. Each item has a purpose, according to Ramirez.
The candles, the flowers and the plate of food are to attract the soul to the altar. The glasses of water are for the souls who are thirsty after their long journey, Ramirez said. Personal items, such as a favorite hat or toy if the person is a child, represent the individual who has died. There is also a salt cross drawn at the bottom of the altar to symbolize the purity of the soul.
“It’s different how we view death then the United States. It’s a celebration,” Ramirez said. “You’d be surprised, sometimes there’s pizza.”
Family members also bring musicians and candy to grave sights, according to Ramirez.
“I had no idea how much tradition went into it,” WMU junior Freddie Bishop said after attending the event.
“This year has been great,” Ramirez said. “We had 90 people on Monday and about the same yesterday (Tuesday).”
“It’s a good thing for people to learn about other cultures,” Ramirez said.