Celebrating Dia de los Muertos

Meghan McBrady

After all the Halloween candy has been consumed and the costumes put away, the first few days of November ushers in a period of remembrance for deceased ancestors.

To commemorate the occasion, the Latin American and Latino studies program (LAS) at Grand Valley State University constructed an altar for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, to honor loved ones in the lobby of the Frederick Meijer Honors College Tuesday, Nov. 1.

Celebrated in Mexico during the first two days of November – otherwise known as All Saints Day and All Souls Day – the holiday is celebrated by family members putting ofrendas, or favorite food and drinks, on altars in order to entice deceased loved ones to come back for a visit.

GVSU’s altar was designed by Mexican artist Roli Mancera, who has built the altar as part of GVSU’s Day of the Dead celebration for the last five years.

Addressing the audience lining the bottom and upper levels of the Honors College, Mancera explained multiple aspects of the Meso-American culture, specifically why offerings are laid out.

“This is the main dining table for the spirit that will come and visit us,” he said. “If someone special comes and visit you, you clean the house – you will get the best tablecloth and prepare the table for that special dinner.”

Further delving into the topic of honoring spirits, Mancera emphasized how each altar he created at GVSU has a different theme.

This year, with books surrounding the altar and propping up several crosses and sugar skulls, the altar and its offerings were for professors that have recently passed and for teachers in that have “disappeared” in Mexico throughout the last several years.

“The books can represent the books that teachers left behind,” Mancera said. “The cross represents the hundreds of teachers that have been forced to disappear. They’ve been killed, have passed away and the books represents that they are remembered.”

As students and other participants helped Mancera adorn the altar with flowers and other offerings, they were also invited to place pictures of deceased love ones on or surrounding the altar.

David Stark, professor of history and the coordinator for the LAS program, said having Mancera speak to students about the significance about the Day of the Dead and the celebration behind it reflects GVSU’s mission to culturally enrich the university’s students.

“It’s a very inclusive celebration, so you can be indigenous, somebody of European descent, or you can be someone of mixed-race,” Stark said. “It’s also a universal thing, coming together and showing appreciation for the dead is one of the things that bind us all as humanity.”

Reflecting on Mancera’s points about the “disappearances” and also the teacher-led protests in Mexico, Stark said he hopes the experience of the event will give students the chance to reflect on the fight for a quality education.

“We take it for granted that we have education here and that we have good schools here,” Stark said. “In the thousands, people disappear, including those educators that put their lives on the line trying to create a better society and help those people who are marginalized or oppressed.”