Holiday celebrates life after death

Ben Glick

No, it isn’t a George A. Romero movie; it’s the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead that is coming to Grand Valley State University’s campus on Oct. 31.

Along with local artist Rolando Mancera, students will learn about this ancient tradition by actively participating in the building of a traditional altar in the atrium of the Mary Idema Pew Library. The event, which is LIB 100- and 201-approved, will take place from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

“We as Mexicans celebrate this, because for us life and death are not different, they are the same,” said Maribel Colorado-Garcia, visiting professor of Spanish. “When you die, it is not the end. Life and death is a process.”

Mancera, who moved to Grand Rapids from Mexico at age 15, said he hopes to expose students to one of his culture’s premier celebrations to help them learn the meaning of death in Mexican culture.

The Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated each year in Mexico on Nov. 1 and 2, when it is believed that spirits of ancestors return from beyond to visit their loved ones. The living offer all the amenities that their departed enjoyed while alive, such as certain foods and music, and on the third day, the dead return to their graves.

But unlike other Western analogs that can be compared to it, the holiday is a jubilant expression and celebration of life. It is no gloomy or sad affair, but rather an extravagant show of colors and music derived from pre-Columbian cultures.

“It is based on a fusion of Catholic and pre-Hispanic cultural elements,” Colorado-Garcia said. “During the two-day celebration, our loved ones who have passed away return, and in that time we welcome and honor them.”

Though recognized and celebrated throughout Mexico, Day of the Dead differs from region to region but shows a cohesive pattern: that death is an object not to be feared, but to be embraced and even ridiculed.
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This humorous depiction of mortality becomes manifested in the death spirit Calaquita—a whimsical and even jubilant depiction of death as well as a complete departure from the American concept of the foreboding grim reaper.

The process is exemplified by the altars dedicated to the departed, which are traditionally decorated ornately and are representative of a family’s or individual’s own beliefs. Interested students will be shown how to make these altars in the proper form at the event.

“The altars the students will make will be simpler than the ones in Mexico, but they will be very nice,” Colorado-Garcia. “(Students) are not just looking at them, (but) they are participating and actually building an altar and understanding what it means, and that is what is important.”