Today is the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead.” But unlike Halloween, which conjures up stark images of death, Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life.
And Eastern New Mexico University celebrated the lives of four students in the form of “ofrendas” or memorial altars on Friday during its third annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration and altar decorating contest.
ENMU students Eric Hodgest, Amanda Tenorio, Rayla Parraz and Rolland “Rojo” Ellsworth, all of whom died in accidents recently, were memorialized on an altar decorated with photos and things they enjoyed in life.
Before the ceremony a few students were choked up near the altar dedicated to the four students. Some shed tears, and others comforted those who did.
ENMU officials with the Multicultural Affairs Department said the four student deaths — three from accidents involving automobiles and one from a bull-riding accident — are not only extremely rare in such a short time frame but also have been difficult and shocking for fellow students.
Among the 10 altars in the Campus Union Building Ballroom were also some that paid tribute to Mexican icons: Selena, Celia Cruz and Mexican actors, Pedro Infante and Maria Felix, as well as to U.S. soldiers who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Professional actor, Patricio Trujillo of Albuquerque, was also on hand, providing a humorous skit on this ancient Mexican ritual which takes a whimsical look at death.
“Death is not about evil things, it is not scary and Dia de los Muertos has nothing to do with Halloween,” Trujillo pointed out. “Dia de los Muertos is a time to remind us we are alive. The Aztec people, who started this ritual more than 500 years ago, believed life is a dream, and at the time we die, we wake up from that dream and come alive.”
According to Trujillo, Dia de los Muertos is about the senses. He said people who observe this holiday often place marigold flowers and burn candles on a loved one’s grave as well as put favorite foods and items the person enjoyed, such as cigarettes, cigars and liquor. In central Mexico, as well as places in the Southwest, people actually set up picnics on the graves of loved ones, with their favorite foods and items, with the belief that the person will return to earth for 24 hours.
The two-day holiday, which actually begins Nov. 1 and continues through Nov. 2, coincides with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day. According to www.holidayinsights.com, Dia de los Muertos was originally celebrated in late July and early August, but was moved to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, when the Spaniards conquered Mexico in the 1500s and looked upon Dia de los Muertos as a pagan ritual. Attempts were made to incorporate Dia de los Muertos with All Saints and All Souls Day, but it was largely unsuccessful.
An ENMU student, Erika Talamantes of Roswell, whose parents are originally from Mexico, grew up with knowledge of Dia de los Muertos.
“Some people may find Dia de los Muertos weird, but I like it because it is not about mourning or being sad,” Talamantes said. “It’s a way to honor them and be happy.”
Talamantes noted that Dia de Los Muertos is becoming a commercial holiday, such as the Mexican Cinco de Mayo and Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebrations.
Winners of the third annual altar decorating contest were:
• 1st place – Mrs. Dolores Garcia’s class at R.M. James Elementary School, who composed an altar in honor of deceased family members.
• 2nd place – Dr. Mary Ayala’s Spanish 403 class for their ofrenda on Maria Felix.
• 3rd place – ENMU student Monica Martinez for her ofrenda on Pedro Infante.