Death to life: Students share Día de los Muertos celebration stories

The night after celebrating Halloween with her family and friends, freshman Alena Hernandez spent the day cleaning up the house. In the evening, her extended family arrived and made hojarascas, Mexican sugar cookies, together.

“I had a lot of fun helping my younger cousins mold the dough. We all listened to music and shared stories of our shared loved ones taking the time to just appreciate the time we have together,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is one of many students at DePaul who celebrate Día de los Muertos, a two-day holiday over Nov. 1 and 2 that reunites the living and the dead.

“That was the last Día de los Muertos [we] got to spend with my abuela, but I think that’s part of what makes it so special when I reflect on it,” Hernandez said. “I remember sitting there listening to her tell stories all throughout the night and thinking to myself ‘I need to stop and enjoy life one day at a time, appreciate the little things some more.’ I stuck to that thought ever since then, and her passing only reinforced that for me.”

Freshman Ilce Medina said she celebrates Día de los Muertos annually because it has always been a big tradition for her family and has been important to her mother.

“I feel like celebrating [the dead] allows me to remember them and keep their memory alive; that way, they are always remembered, regardless how many years it has been since they have passed away,” Medina said. “The reason I celebrate this holiday is to honor their lives and remember them. I do this every day, but Día de los Muertos is a special occasion where I celebrate them with everyone around me. I have this perception of why to celebrate because it was how my mother would celebrate those who have passed, so I wanted to continue this tradition. My family has never stopped celebrating a family member. No matter who they are, we want to keep their memory alive and thank God for the time they spent here with us.”

Hernandez agreed. She said there is more meaning to the holiday than just acknowledging loved ones who have passed. National Geographic said people celebrate for Día de los Muertos because the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, so the holiday celebrates the lives of the deceased with different foods, drinks, parties and activities the dead enjoyed during their lives.

“I celebrate Día de los Muertos to keep the memory of past loved ones alive,” Hernandez said. “I believe that just because one’s body is gone, doesn’t mean their soul disappeared with it. I believe it is important to commemorate the lives of those who are no longer with us.”

Though there are many students at DePaul who celebrate Día de los Muertos, it can be difficult to celebrate when students are separated from their families back home, especially with the pressure to celebrate the holiday perfectly for passed loved ones.

“There is no ‘correct’ way to celebrate Día de los Muertos—in fact, my family doesn’t celebrate it the traditional way,” Medina said. “We create an altar and place it above our chimney and fill it with photos of our loved ones who have passed and items that were significant to them. I created my own little altar in my dorm. I printed out photos and placed them on the wall with poster putty. I also added a calavera [a skull] that I painted with Tepeyac [a Latinx student organization dedicated to faith, service and culture].”

The time in school allows students to come together to celebrate. There are ofrendas — ceremonial altars built to honor dead loved ones — open to all students in both the DePaul Center at the Loop campus and the Student Center at the Lincoln Park campus. There are different activities students can do at the ofrendas such as writing family members’ names on tags to place on the ofrenda and painting skulls.

Zamudio said setting up an ofrenda is the second step to beginning to celebrate Día de los Muertos; the first is accepting the holiday is emotional but meant to celebrate the lives of those who have passed.

“I would say the first step would be to recognize the celebration is not a sad thing,” Zamudio said. “The celebration is a chance to show your loved ones you are caring for them from the living world and anticipate their arrival. Once you have that understanding of the celebration, I would suggest setting up an ofrenda. Your first ofrenda does not have to be big or extravagant. It can be as simple as a photo with some flowers.”

Hernandez said she agreed the ofrenda can be important to the celebration, but it is not necessary to have an extravagant ofrenda in order to celebrate Día de los Muertos.

“In all honesty, the holiday can be very flashy sometimes, but I don’t believe all of the different physical objects are needed to celebrate,” Hernandez said. “All you need is a lot of love and someone you’d like to commemorate to send that love to. It can be as simple as having a picture, listening to a song or sharing a story.

“For me, Día de los Muertos is all about the little things,” Hernandez said. “Soaking in the joy of life and taking extra time to remember those we have lost. Listening to music they enjoyed, buying flowers that remind me of them, telling a story about them if it comes up, things like that. I will also be calling my family so we can pray the rosary like we do every year.”

Zamudio said she will also be celebrating at DePaul, even though it is not the same celebration she participates in at home with her family.

“I have been wanting to continue celebrating Día de los Muertos while being in college, but I’m not able to do some of the traditions I would be doing at home with my family,”  Zamudio said. “Luckily I have had the opportunity to have some traditions here with me at DePaul. They have an ofrenda in the student center where I was able to write the name of my loved ones who have passed and they also had a Día de los Muertos Spanish mass.”

While there are opportunities for students at DePaul to celebrate Día de los Muertos despite being away from home, there is still a desire for the school to provide time off until the holiday has come to an end.

“DePaul accompanies my needs in celebrating by providing various activities to help celebrate while away from home,” Zamudio said. “I don’t think the school gives any accommodations for time off school to celebrate, but I feel it would be nice if that had that option for students to return back home, if they have the opportunity to, so that they may celebrate with their families.”

Hernandez said she agreed with needing time off during the holiday. “DePaul is accompanying my needs by providing outlets in which I can connect with other students who are in the same place as I am, but I unfortunately do not have school off the first or second [of November,” Hernandez said. “I understand the reasoning behind continuing to have school those days, but I have a feeling that personally it will be a struggle to go through my routine next week while still carrying the emotional weight that comes with the holiday.”