MEChA’s Unique Celebration

When was the last time you had a party to celebrate death? That’s exactly what MEChA de UCI did when they hosted their annual Dia de los Muertos festivities on Wednesday, Nov. 27.
Students gathered at the picnic tables in front of UCItems to eat, drink and be merry … and perhaps a little bit scary?
Dia de los Muertos is a 3,000-year-old tradition that originated from Mexico’s indigenous population. When Spanish conquistadors settled in Mexico 500 years ago, they combined these traditions with Catholic ideologies and created a holiday that is practiced throughout Mexico, the United States and some areas of Central-America. It is a ritual that seemingly mocks death with costumes, dancing and feasts. In more traditional countries, such as Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is a three-day celebration in which families of deceased loved-ones spend time at the cemetery decorating graves, cooking food, playing music and having conversations with the dead.
However in the United States, the day is more likely to be spent in front of an altar decorated with flowers, candles, incense and pictures of deceased loved ones and admired figures in history.
For example, MEChA de UCI’s festivities included an altar made of flowers and surrounded by candles and pictures of famous figures in Latino history, including Che Guevara.
According to Professor Alejandro Gradilla, the keynote speaker on Wednesday night and visiting professor at UCI, Dia de los Muertos is not the Mexican Halloween or a Catholic tradition.
It is, instead, a reminder that Mexicans come from a culture that does not view death as scary or painful, but as a natural part of everyday life.
‘We, as Mexicans and Chicanos, in our very long term memory, co-existed with death quite comfortably,’ Gradilla explained. ‘Death was not a disappointment, [it] was not an end, [and] it was not another phase … death is part of life ‘y punto.”
Gradilla went on to explain that in the U.S., we tend to invoke fear into the idea of death.
‘One of the things we learn here, living in this country, is we learn to fear the phases of life. That’s very American; we in the U.S. culturally fear death.’
The festivities started on Wednesday night with a performance by UCI’s Ballet Folklorico. The dancers, dressed up as hunched-over old men and wearing sombreros, performed a skit that held true to the tradition of mocking death by making it funny instead of scary. This was especially true when at the end of the skit one of the dancers who appeared to be dead suddenly sprang to life at the sight of a pretty girl.
After the performances and speeches were over, those in attendance were invited to socialize, dance and indulge in the tamales, champurrado (a Mexican drink) and sweet bread that were being served.
Juan Ortiz, third-year film-studies major, heard about the event in his Spanish class and was pleased that he decided to come.
‘This is my first time learning about what the holiday is really about,’ Ortiz said. ‘I identified a lot with what [Gradilla] said as far as viewing death as something that is scary instead of something that is comforting.’
Goretty Ramos, a fifth-year women’s studies major and coordinator of this year’s event, was also pleased with the number of people in attendance.
‘The attendance is very high, more than I expected after a last-minute change of location due to rain … so I am more than pleased to see so many faces here,’ Ramos said.
She went on to explain why it is important to make time to celebrate these traditions, even though UCI is a far cry from the rural towns in Mexico where the holiday originated.
‘For me personally it is inspirational to see this tradition kept alive for so many centuries and I hope it [will] continue for many more.’