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An uncharacteristically rainy night and a gloomy Wednesday morning did not stop student group M.E.Ch.A. from putting together a special event for Día de los Muertos. M.E.Ch.A. stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, which is a student-led group which promotes and encourages Chicanx and Latinx people to pursue and continue higher education, while maintaining a strong sense of self-identification and pride. The event, which took place on Whittier College’s Upper Quad on Wednesday, November 2, 2022, promised students an opportunity to eat traditional Latinx food, see special performances by various groups, and make contributions to a community altar all in celebration of Día de los Muertos.
Día de Los Muertos is a traditional Latinx holiday celebrated on November 1st and 2nd that reunites the living with their loved ones who have passed on. For one night, the gates of the spirit world and living world open up and the deceased can return to their loved ones on Earth. Día de los Muertos is a celebration of life, celebrated in many Latinx countries such as Mexico, Columbia, or Ecuador. It is also celebrated in the United States. M.E.Ch.A. has put on events for Día de los Muertos before, and this year they pulled out all the stops.
The Upper Quad was transformed into a celebration, with tables spread out across the grass adorned with colorful tablecloths, floral centerpieces, and surrounded by marigold petals. In the center of the setup of tables, were four ofrendas, or altars. Student groups were given the opportunity to put together ofrendas to celebrate Día de los Muertos alongside M.E.Ch.A. and the Whittier College community. The first ofrenda was one put together by M.E.Ch.A. and it had pictures of numerous women who have been victims of femicide, a form of gender-based violence which is the intentional killing of women and girls simply because they are women. They chose to highlight this to bring awareness to Un Dia Sin Nosotros, which translates to “A Day Without Us.” Un Dia Sin Nosotros is a protest that took place in Mexico City on March 9, 2020 where women stayed home for a day to protest the increasing violence against women in Latin America. The next ofrenda was put together by the Black Student Assembly (BSA). The altar was decorated with a Black Lives Matter flag and a graduation stole with the words “Black Grads Matter ” embroidered on the front. The altar included pictures of Black individuals who have been the victims of police violence. The third ofrenda was put together by the student group Transgender, Other Identified, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Allies for Diversity (TOBGLAD). The altar was decorated with the pink, blue, and white trans flag and included pictures of trans individuals who have lost their lives due to transphobia. The last ofrenda was put together by Whittier College’s career center, and it included pictures and biographies of notable activists. Ofrendas are a very important part of the celebration of Día de Los Muertos as they are constructed to honor the deceased. Each altar was adorned with the essential elements of an ofrenda which include candles, calaveras (sugar skulls), marigolds, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and papel picado (colorful paper with cut out shapes).
The event kicked off at 11 a.m. with M.E.Ch.A. Co-Presidents Galilea Landa-Posas and Natalia Arevalo welcoming students to their Día de los Muertos celebration. As students lined up in front of the Wardman Library to get their food, which was prepared by the Campus Inn, Landa-Posas and Arevalo introduced the Whittier College student body to the first performers of the morning, the mariachi group Mariachi Los Santaneros. The group consisted of seven people all playing various instruments and singing. The group featured Abel Diaz, Whittier College senior and Vice President of M.E.Ch.A., on the guitarron (a large, six-stringed Mexican acoustic bass guitar). Diaz has been playing with the mariachi group since January and was thrilled to play amongst his peers. “It was a really fun experience, usually we play for complete strangers, but seeing familiar faces was really cool to see,” said Diaz about performing at school. “I was a little nervous but seeing how much the school enjoyed hearing the music made me forget all about [being nervous]. I still get people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed the group coming to campus.” Mariachi Los Santaneros played for about an hour, moving from table to table to sing directly to the students, which is something mariachis often do while performing at parties and celebrations.
Students ate a delicious meal catered by the dedicated Campus Inn staff, which included beef, chicken, or tofu fajitas, Spanish rice, white rice, black beans, pinto beans, tortilla chips, salsa, guacamole, cheese, and sour cream. Desserts included churros and pan de muerto, with aguas frescas (fruit drinks) being served as drinks. Students with a meal plan were able to use their meal swipes to eat lunch, and commuter students were provided with meal vouchers to receive their lunch. M.E.Ch.A. worked closely with the CI staff to put together the menu for Día de los Muertos and make sure the lunch could happen outside with the rest of the celebration. “There can never be a Mexican celebration without some good food and music and I think we accomplished both of those,” said Landa-Posas.
At 12 o’clock the mariachis finished a wonderful set and Landa-Posas and Arevalo introduced the second performers of the afternoon, which was the Aztec dance group Danza Azteca Xochipilli. Dressed in colorful outfits and large feather headdresses, they performed several songs, taking the time to explain the meaning behind each song and why it was important to keep their traditions alive. For one dance, they encouraged students, faculty, and staff to join them as they danced. They guided those who participated in the dance through the movements, and it was definitely one of the highlights of the afternoon. As they finished their performance, they closed with the words: “Hopefully we will see you all next year. If not, we will see you all on the other side. We all are one.”
The final performers of the afternoon were the Folklorico group Danzantes del Alma, a student-run Folklorico group from the University of California, Davis. The three dancers traveled all the way from Davis to perform at Whittier for Día de Los Muertos. They performed two dances and wore beautiful white dresses with large red flowers in their hair.
Whittier College is a Hispanic Serving Institution with approximately seventy percent of its student body identifying as students of color. Events like this celebrate the diversity of the College and represent the student body as a whole. “The most important aspect for me was creating an event that people could be a part of and that it was,” said Landa-Posas. “It was important that our event didn’t feel like it was being put on display. I love that many people enjoyed the event and felt represented, including the CI workers, the housekeeping and facilities staff.”
Día de Los Muertos at its core is a celebration of life, with rich cultural history. M.E.Ch.A. created a space that celebrated community and identity, which is something that Whittier College does best. “One of the main reasons I chose to come to Whittier was because of how diverse and inclusive it is,” said Diaz. “There are so many people from all over the world and it is so cool to see and experience all the different cultures here in one small community. I don’t think you can get that anywhere else.”
All photos courtesy of Rylie White and WC The Rock.