Día de los Muertos celebration offers students insight into a special Mexican tradition

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By Katherine Brzozowski

Students gathered in the atrium of H.J. Patterson Oct. 25 to learn about Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is celebrated in Mexico to commemorate those who have passed.

As a joint effort between the Latin American Studies Center (LASC) and the International Affairs Office, the event offered students the opportunity to try traditional Mexican food, engage in arts and crafts and learn about the holiday’s traditions.

Día de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated in Mexico on Nov. 1, and is celebrated in the home, according to LASC coordinator Eric Tomala. Tomala translated for Lucrecia Espinal, a chef from Guerrero, Mexico, who runs a catering business out of her home in the College Park area.

IMG_4141Guerrero natives typically believe the souls of those who have passed away are given permission to come back and visit during the holiday, Tomala said, adding that they celebrate by building an altar with photos and cherished items of their deceased loved ones.

To show that the holiday is meant to portray death in a not-so serious or even humorous way, Espinal wore bright colors and painted her face during the event.

IMG_4140Espinal, served traditional dishes, including a warm and thick chocolate and corn flour-based drink called chumpurrado, and a sweet bread topped with sugar or sesames called pan de muertos, or “bread of the dead.”

As they ate, Tomala played a tutorial video to help students make papel picado, or “cut-out paper,” from  brightly colored sheets of folded tissue paper.

When they were finished, students were encouraged to hang their artwork on the altar with the name of a loved one who had passed.

IMG_4161After speaking to students about the Mexican traditions and customs celebrated for Día de los Muertos, students and organizers openly discussed how the holiday is celebrated differently all over the world.

“Latin America itself is not defined by geography,” LASC director Britta Anderson, adding that the the holiday is celebrated globally.

According to Anderson, the goal of LASC is to increase understanding and create empathy and respect for Latin American cultures and experiences, and that this event was meant to create an understanding and respect for people who had not necessarily grown up around American culture or tradition.

Nick Schmitz, a sophomore government and politics major with a minor in Spanish and Italian, said the event was important because it gave students the opportunity to participate in and understand another culture without appropriating it.

Zabdiel Alvarado-Martinez, a graduate student in the Biological Sciences program, is from Puerto Rico and came to the event because he wanted to better understand the traditions and beliefs of the holiday across various Spanish-speaking countries.

IMG_4150“I hope that students learned that the world is a pretty big place, and that people have many different beliefs and many traditions that maybe we don’t understand, and that it’s important for us to make the extra effort to understand,” Alvarado-Martinez said. “Especially in the U.S., where so many people come and bring their culture with them, you can’t expect that their culture will dilute and dissipate when they move to a new country. It’s about creating an environment of understanding, and UMD is the perfect place for that.”

The altar built at the event will be left in the atrium for the next week, according to Anderson. Students are encouraged to respect the display and continue adding the names of their loved ones to the altar.

Anderson said she hopes to partner with the Office of International Affairs to hold the event again next year.

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