In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in over 231,000 deaths throughout the country, Macalester students and faculty are looking at ways to commemorate those lost.
The devastation caused by the pandemic was front and center in the Dia de los Muertos altar located in the Department of Multicultural Life (DML) lounge in Kagin Commons, which was dedicated to COVID-19 victims.
In light of so much loss, it is important to recognize a holiday commemorating those who have passed. Dia de los Muertos, however, is often misunderstood.
“It’s not Mexican Halloween,” said associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese Ernesto Ortiz-Diaz. “We celebrate our ancestors. It was celebrated by the Aztecs but it was synchronized with Catholicism to what it is today.”
Diaz also described how people celebrate the holiday in Mexico.
“People clean the graves of their families and go to mass,” he said.”People also have get-togethers with family.”
Due to COVID-19, Dia de los Muertos celebrations this year were different.
“Cemeteries were closed and people had to set up altars at their homes,” Ortiz-Diaz said. “More traditionally, people set up altars at home. Celebrations had to be taken home. Instead of being a public celebration it was more private.”
Similarly, celebrations at Macalester were different. In previous years, students from the student organization Adelante!, along with Ortiz-Diaz, held dedication ceremonies to celebrate Dia de los Muertos.
In a normal year, students would give out tamales, pan de muertos and Mexican hot chocolate and chat with students and other faculty about who the altar is dedicated to. In past years, the altar was dedicated to those killed by the current U.S. immigration system.
For Ortiz-Diaz, Dia de los Muertos has an important connection to his heritage.
“This is a celebration that makes me feel connected to my Indigenous roots in Mexico,” he said. “It is a perfect way to celebrate our loved ones in the past.”
Dean of Multicultural Life Marjorie Trueblood also collaborated with Professor Ortiz-Diaz this year to house the altar in the DML lounge for the first time. In previous years altars were in the Janet Wallace Fine Arts building or inside the Spanish department.
“By putting it in the DML lounge it could bridge the co-curricular world and the academic world,” Trueblood said.
In light of COVID-19, many restrictions were in place to ensure the safety of students and faculty.
“We had to have a sign up sheet so we knew when to come in so people could view the altar and to also limit people to accommodate,” Trueblood said. “We had to make sure things were cleaned and wiped down. Every program we do, whether in-person or virtual, is more intentional.”
Trueblood said being intentional was especially important in light of rising cases in the U.S. She stressed the importance of making space for celebrations even in light of COVID-19.
“This year, the altar being dedicated to COVID death is especially relevant, especially in making space for those who are no longer with us and looking at traditions that do that,” Trueblood said.