Whittier College celebrates life on Día de los Muertos

Charley Aguirre


Nov. 2, the final day of Dia de los Muertos. I walked up to the Upper Quad and wound my way around the incredibly long line to take my place, lest I miss out on the opportunity to get a free lunch as one of the first hundred commuters. Around me, students swarmed and the bustle of different groups setting up tables for ofrendas (the collection of offerings on a table), sugar skull decorating, and face painting created a certain energy in the air as they all prepared for the lunch-turned-holiday-festivity. When I asked first-year D Garcia who helped plan the event, how she thought it turned out she said, “I feel that it was very touching experience for me. It meant a lot because I had never seen it celebrated on such a wide scale.”

Once plates had been handed out, students filed into new lines, their hunger growing as the food entered their line of sight. The lines snaked around two tables of food and Bon Appétit employees waiting to serve it. People piled their plates with tortillas, salad, rice, beans, zucchini and corn, birria (a meat dish from Jalisco, Mexico), and soy chicken fajitas. At a separate table sat pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and Mexican wedding cookies, alongside coffee, tea, lemonade, water, and horchata. The people in line served themselves and then immediately took shelter from the scorching midday sun under the shade of the various trees outlining the Upper Quad.

Once their stomachs had filled and the lawn became freckled with crumbs and trash, most students took the other areas of entertainment. Attendees could decorate their own sugar skulls or have the design painted on their face, complete with glitter. Though the heat would melt either one fairly quickly, both tables attracted attention. On a more serious note, a table was set up as an ofrenda altar to honor the dead. Marigolds, pictures, mementos, and ofrendas for the deceased scattered the table. In a heartfelt and moving decision, someone dedicated a quarter of the table to the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, making the meaning of the holiday more real for many present.

Despite the seemingly lighthearted fun and livelihood of the lunch event, the true purpose of Día de los Muertos did not go unrecognized. Remembering the holiday’s Aztec origins, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) and the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) had chosen traditional dancers to conclude the event. They made their way to the front of the makeshift stage, their colorful clothes and feathers illuminated in the sun. They brought with them drums, maracas, and other small percussive instruments that rattled with each step. Two people from the group drummed, each playing their own beat, creating a powerful syncopated rhythm. The dancers leapt, swirled, and moved around each other in time while one person chanted and incense burned.

The chanter explained between dances that they were calling out a prayer and warned students not to participate in the activities lightly. She reminded them that the holiday is a celebration of life and that the sugar skulls, feathers, and skeleton outfits are not costumes like those worn for Halloween; they are symbols to honor death, life, and rebirth. After the dancers had wrapped up, the audience applauded and thanked them for their work which carried on centuries old traditions and kept the culture alive.

Being a Hispanic serving Institute, this recognition of our heritage can mean so much to many. Even staff member and advisor for Poets por Puerto Rico Joanna Diaz chimed in, saying, “I loved it. I think it's important to incorporate these cultural celebrations into our campus community.”

If you would like to further your knowledge of and experience with Latinx cultures, attend a club meeting for MEChA or Poets por Puerto Rico or visit the OEI.