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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Student centers celebrate Día de Los Muertos with community altars 

Día de Los Muertos altars and celebrations on campus foster a home away from home for Latinx students 

By MARIA MARTINEZ CASTRO  — features@theaggie.org 

 

Nov. 1 and 2 mark a celebration of remembrance, community and love for many people of Mexican heritage all over the world and Latinx communities in the United States. Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is an opportunity for people to celebrate and honor the lives of loved ones who have passed. Many people celebrate by curating beautiful and colorful “altares” (altars) with “ofrendas” (offerings) in the form of a loved one’s photograph, favorite food or another representation of their character and lived experiences. 

This year, student resource centers on campus celebrated the holiday by organizing community altares.

The Center for Chicanx and Latinx Academic Student Success (CCLASS or El Centro) has continued its annual tradition of organizing a community altar since its opening in 2017. Roxanne Flores, Office Coordinator of El Centro, shares that the center’s altar is meant to garner a sense of community on campus and beyond. 

“We invite all,” Flores said. “It doesn’t matter [if it’s] students, faculty, staff, community members, people who live in Davis. We just want everyone to contribute to our altar to build a sense of community [and] belonging and help our students feel at home if this is something that they do in their homes too.” 

 In organizing culturally relevant programming for Latinx students, student centers allow students to thrive by creating safe spaces that recognize their identities and culture. Flores views the curating of the altar as an opportunity to connect with students and uplift them in their journey throughout higher education. 

“I think first and foremost it’s because [the altar] really helps us to retain our students,” Flores said. “So when our community has a sense of a home away from home, which is what we try to provide here at El Centro, they feel more empowered to do well. They feel more supported to reach out, to ask for help.” 

Karla Carranza and Penny Diaz, who are community leaders at the Women’s Resources and Research Center (WRRC), took the opportunity to celebrate community on campus and honor lives lost to gendered violence. Carranza, a second-year political science major, shared the importance of honoring and celebrating the lives of people who are not recognized properly. 

“We have all these different altares going on around campus, but one component we wanted to remember is that there are a lot of victims to gendered violence, and I feel like their stories often go unheard and untold,” Carranza said. “One of the big things of Día de Los Muertos is remembering all these people and their lives, and we wanted to make sure we’re keeping their memories alive, all while reminding people that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.” 

Diaz, a third-year English major, emphasized the importance of seeing victims of gendered violence through their humanity rather than through their suffering. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of victims of gender-based violence are just turned into statistics,” Diaz said. “They’re defined by the very gruesome aftermath of their death and are painted as victims and only remembered in the ways that they died or in the ways they suffered or [were] persecuted. But our focus for Día de Los Muertos is to remember that they were people first and not defined by what other people did to them.” 

Beyond honoring lives lost to gendered violence, Carranza and Diaz organized the Día de Los Muertos altar to create a sense of community and belonging for Chicanx and Latinx students on campus and in the WRRC. 

“With Día de Los Muertos, at least as a Latinx student, I feel like oftentimes it’s hard to find representation on campus,” Carranza said. “Like, I don’t want to say the altar is just meant for Latinx students, but it’s nice to see more of our culture be represented in these spaces. We’re trying to get more Latinx students to come into the center and interact with us and understand that these spaces are meant for you as well, not just for other people. It’s meant for everyone to enjoy and participate.” 

While UC Davis is a campus committed to diversity and inclusion according to its Principles of Community, Carranza explained that there are times when some students feel that they and their celebrations and traditions are not represented.

“I think also, at least I can speak from my experience, it is very hard to find community in college,” Carranza said. “It’s so hard to relate to other people because, regardless of anything, Davis is a predominantly white institution. It’s so hard to embrace your culture. I feel like I lose touch a lot. So, I think that’s why it’s important to have these culturally based programs so that students know that Davis can still be their home away from home. We need to make adequate steps for that.” 

Diaz commented on the importance for Chicanx and Latinx students to continue cultural celebrations beyond their home space. As people move away from home, they act as vessels of their culture and celebrations. 

“I think especially for Chicanx and Latinx students, so much of our cultural identity is family- and community-based,” Diaz said. “I remember I went to a Día de Los Muertos festival over the weekend in Woodland, and I was crying in the crowd because I miss that sense of community or being able to reminisce about the memories of my loved ones with my own family. I think part of the celebration of those that we have lost is held in the ritual of setting up the altar. We’re in communion with the people you are remembering and then also the people that are still with you.” 

 

Written by: Maria Martinez Castro — features@theaggie.org