Event Review: Día de los Muertos Celebration at Western Illinois University

With some thoughts about how this Mexican tradition is observed abroad

Día de los Muertos in 2021 has now come and gone. Did you celebrate?

When I was in my first Spanish classes in high school during the mid 1990s, we didn’t talk about this celebration at all, at least I don’t think we did. I didn’t really learn about this day until I met my Mexican wife, whose family makes altars and bakes pan de muerto every year. I would go so far as to say that this cultural tradition played an important role in my eventual conversion to Catholicism.

Today this celebration is ubiquitous. Even in our little town in rural Illinois, I can go to the local Wal Mart, Walgreens, or Dollar Store and find Día de los Muertos decorations. They might be made in China, but they’re there.

Do any Spanish teachers in the United States not address Día de los Muertos these days? Probably there are a few, but not many. And why not? It’s a beautiful tradition. And there are a ton of resources available to teachers. I’ve often talked about this tradition in my classes, but this year I finally allowed my students to do some hands-on activities, like make tissue paper flowers, as pictured in the video below. I guess I always thought that at the university level we shouldn’t do these types of activities, but given the challenges of education in 2021, I thought we could use a little levity. We also had decorated some cookies in the shape of calaveras and had some paletas made from chocolate in the shape of calaveras, catrines, and catrinas.

Video from Milwaukee Art Museum on making paper flowers for Día de los Muertos

One thing that I’ve noticed about how a lot of teachers present Día de los Muertos is that they do it without making mention of the Catholic traditions that complement indigenous beliefs, the hybrid of which created this celebration in the first place. Even in movies like “Coco” from Disney/Pixar, which is very entertaining and reflects authentic Mexican perspectives and practices, there’s no discussion, I don’t think, of why Día de los Muertos is celebrated when it is, for example. The representation of it is primarily secular, for better or worse, depending on one’s perspective.

“Coco” trailer, by Disney/Pixar.

Recently, I’ve been wondering what it is about Día de los Muertos that has captured the world’s attention, while other Mexican traditions are relatively unknown. Very few Americans, at least, know that September 16th is Mexican Independence Day; many people still think it’s on May 5th. Most countries in this hemisphere have their own Independence Day after all, don’t they? So that day doesn’t really captivate foreigners’ attention. And the Día la Virgen de Guadalupe can only be appreciated in a Catholic context, so non religious people can’t relate to it. I think that what resonates about Día de los Muertos, is that death is a universal theme. My American passport won’t protect me from death. It’s coming for all of us. The way Mexicans approach death, however, might seem to many to be unusual, exotic, or even comforting.

One of the altars prepared at Casa Latina. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

At any rate, on Friday, October 30, the Casa Latina cultural center, located in the Multicultural Center building of Western Illinois University (WIU), where I work, opened its doors for the annual Día de los Muertos celebration. We don’t attend every year, but we try to, if we can. The event is generally well attended by students and members of the community. While the event changes somewhat from year to year, many of the most popular aspects are maintained, such as the cultural explanation of the holiday, a nice meal, performances by the Tradición Hispana Dance Troupe, presentation of Día de los Muertos altars, and activities such as face painting and calavera cookie decorating.

Below are a couple recordings of the performances I recorded of Tradición Hispana. I really admire these students, some of whom do not have a formal background in dance, because they simply love to express themselves and share their culture through dance.

A couple of new features, I think, this year were a catrín/catrina contest, judged by some of WIU’s Hispanic professors. Below are some pictures.

One of the organizers, Meyani (left), with one of the contestants. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
One of the organizers, Meyani (left), with the winning contestant. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

One event that I wasn’t expecting this year was the performance of WIU professor Brenda Iglesias, a renowned mezzo soprano from Mexico, who interpreted such songs as “La bruja,” “La Llorona,” and “El jinete,” the recordings of which are below. Afterwards, she told us that her classical training in singing didn’t really lend itself to the performance of these types of songs, but the audience found these interpretations to be delightful, nonetheless.

“La Llorona,” performed by Brenda Iglesias. Recorded by Daniel H. Brown.
“La bruja,” performed by Brenda Iglesias. Recorded by Daniel H. Brown
“El jinete,” performed by Brenda Iglesias. Recorded by Daniel H. Brown

At WIU, we’re very fortunate to have the Casa Latina. Not only does it do an invaluable job of bringing the community out to learn about Hispanic culture, but more importantly, they give Latino students a place to belong. College can often be a difficult space to navigate, especially for a first-generation college student, as many of WIU’s students are. I can only hope that they continue to receive the financial support to continue to provide the services they offer.

Did you celebrate Día de los Muertos this year? Let us know how in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on your favorite social media. ¡Gracias!

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