A humble altar adorned with candles and skulls. Colorful, artfully cut paper decorations strung overhead. The aroma of warm, sugary bread and spiced hot cocoa. Disney’s “Coco” playing on the TV. These were just some of the highlights of Día de los Muertos at UCCS.
Annually during Nov. 1-2, the Spanish program celebrates the Day of the Dead together with people throughout Latin America. This year, festivities were held in the Excel Languages Center in conjunction with other language programs, offering international foods and language resources while maintaining a focus on the holiday.
“It’s a celebration of those that have died. We believe that they come here, when we make an altar, and visit us, so it’s a very happy day,” said Ariana Huerta, senior Spanish major, president of the UCCS Hispanic Honor Society and lead Spanish language tutor in the center.
Huerta helped organize the event together with Edgar Cota-Torres, associate professor of Spanish languages and cultures. They usually hold the celebration in Berger Hall, according to Huerta, and the Hispanic Honor Society puts together the altar, which this year included a memorial of those who have died due to COVID-19.
Despite the altar’s solemn reminder, attendees kept up the spirit of the holiday, celebrating the departed with lively conversation and hearty enjoyment of the free food.
“The difference between here and the real thing is usually we would do this in the cemetery, and we spend the whole day with them [the dead] and pray and do stuff with them there,” Huerta said. “We still have … the same type of bread at the cemetery, the same type of decorations as far as flowers, skulls and everything like that.”
Julie Davila, a third-year education major from Peru, said, “For me, [Día de los Muertos] means remembering the people who have left us. We have the people who have left us in our hearts, but it’s about making a special day for them.”
“We’re always taught that they never stop existing because they live in us. The day that we forget the people who have left us, that day is when they stop existing,” she said.
“I don’t do anything special anymore because really I celebrate Halloween, for my daughter. But when I talk with my mom … for us Día de los Muertos was going to the cemetery to visit and place flowers and everything,” Davila said.
“Now it’s only praying and remembering, because of not being able to be there [in Peru] to tidy the graves,” she said. “For example, my mom always attends mass on Día de los Muertos.”
Kelsey Maiers, a junior Spanish major, first learned about Día de los Muertos in a high school Spanish class by watching “The Book of Life” and “Coco.”
“Now I just think it’s really important when you’re studying a language to actually care about the culture that you’re studying and be interested in it because that contributes to the language so much,” Maiers said.
“It’s not just learning to read and write, it’s learning about how other people live. Even as someone who’s studying this language who’s not Hispanic or Latino, I think it’s important and I think it’s interesting. And they have good bread!” she said.
The sweet Mexican bread in question, “pan de muerto,” is a traditional staple that was offered at the celebration. German brats and French baguettes and cheese also had a place at the table this year due to the collaboration with the Excel Languages Center.
The Día de los Muertos celebration is open annually to all students, and the Spanish program seeks to include Hispanic students broadly in events, according to Huerta. “We’re always trying to have Hispanic events here, not just Mexican or not just Puerto Rican, it’s for everybody, everybody’s included,” she said.
Maiers added, “I think people are super welcoming. Even though I’m a student in the program, I think they would treat everyone the same.”
In the future, the event may return to Berger Hall, or the Excel Languages Center may host it again. “This is the first time we’ve had it here in the center, and maybe in upcoming years we’ll have it here as well,” Huerta said.