Día de Muertos

On October 30th, the Department of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures hosted an event to commemorate the Day of the Dead.

The Department of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures (LLC) focuses on four different areas of study; Hispanic, German, Italian, and Russian. The department often provides students with opportunities to connect to their area of study by hosting regular conferences and events, which many help in the organization of. On October 30th, they held a Hispanic event commemorating the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), welcoming all students taking a Spanish language and literature course, as well as faculty and staff. This particular event has been hosted for close to ten years, making it very special to the LLC.

Firstly, students were welcomed into a colourful room with streamers in the shapes of skulls and crossbones hanging in reds, blues, purples, pinks, yellows, and oranges. Although, the main attraction to one’s eye was the glorious cross on the floor, and altar above it.

As for the altar, one traditionally commemorates a loved one that has passed on, but for the purposes of this event, the altar was dedicated to individuals from Hispanic culture that died this past year. One was a Cuban dancer, Alicia Alonso, an Argentinian singer-songwriter, Alberto Cortez, and lastly, Camilo Sesto, a Spanish singer and songwriter. On the altar were pictures of the dead, some of their favourite things from when they were alive, some satirical poems, candles, sugar skulls with the names of the dead engraved on them and much more.

Once students had a chance to get some refreshments, including the traditional Pan de Muerto, Lucia Chamanadjian, the Hispanic Studies Language Program Director and one of the main organizers of the event, invited Lidia Ponce de la Vega, a course lecturer and PhD candidate of Hispanic studies, to the front of the room to speak. Lidia then went in-depth about each aspect of the altar.

For instance, although fake flower petals were used on the altar for the purpose of the exemplar, it is originally decorated with petals from the cempasuchil flower, otherwise known as the Mexican marigold. The flower’s significance goes all the way back to Pre-Hispanic cultures and was said to guide the dead to the altar with its bright colour and strong scent.

An important recurring theme in regards to the altar is the number four. The cross has four points, signifying the four cardinal directions (North, South, East, and West), as well as the four elements; earth, wind, water, and fire. Similarly, representations of some of the elements are present on the altar itself. For example, fruits and vegetables, corn, flowers, and salt among other things all represent earth, while the lit candles represent fire. In fact, the candles and salt are crucial: the candles guide the spirits to the altar and the offerings it holds, while the salt protects the souls of the spirits from corruption while travelling between the land of the living and the dead. By this point, students are starting to realize that every part of the age-old tradition is entirely deliberate.

Lidia concludes by thanking everyone for joining the celebration, and encourages students to get their face painted in the likeness of La Catrina, and to enjoy the refreshments laid out. As an aside, La Catrina is the image of the infamous skeleton woman. The symbol has Aztec roots, but soon became a symbol of Death in Mexico, as well as a symbol of Mexican culture, through the use of it in revolutionary art in the early 20th century. As a part of Día de Muertos, people generally try to paint themselves in her general likeness.

If anyone happened to miss a part of Lidia’s short lesson, they could refer to the slideshow projected onto a wall at the back of the room, which explained all the symbols of the altar in Spanish, as well as the meaning of death in Mexico and how it is celebrated in other countries, such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru.

Once Lidia had a free moment, I wanted to ask her what she thought the real significance of the day was, as well as what the tradition meant to her specifically. She replied with the following:

“I think Día de Muertos is a celebration of the uniqueness of Mexico. It represents our particular beliefs about Death, but it also highlights our indigenous origins, our syncretism. It is a celebration that represents the hybrid nature of a culture that is born from colonization but does not lose its roots. It is also an excellent example of who we are as people. The food, the drinks, the colours, the flowers, the dance, the music. It is the epitome of Mexican culture. In recent years, it has become a link with Mexicans across the world as well. Día de Muertos celebrations and imagery have become very important and present in countries such as the United States and Canada. As an immigrant in Montreal, for me, it is a way to remain connected to my country. Personally, Día de Muertos is also a chance to remember the loved ones that departed and to bring them back to life. I know it is very common that young people know their ancestors, who died before they were even born, through the memories that are brought back to life every Día de Muertos. Such is the case of my family, for example. We mourn our dead, of course, but we also remember them and keep them alive in our traditions, which is very comforting when one deals with a loss.”

In relation to Lidia’s comments on syncretism, few realize that although the Día de Muertos has Aztec roots, it has deep Catholic ties as well. After the Spaniards arrived to the Aztec territory, rather than wipe out the indigenous religions and ceremonies, they tried to appropriate and resignify many of them to give them Catholic meaning, so it would be easier to convert indigenous peoples to Catholicism. Lidia says, “The result is a very complex process of syncretism that is still present in Mexican traditions, beliefs, and culture in general. Thus, it is very common (if not necessary) to have Catholic symbols/images in altars for the Día de Muertos.” Today, many people a part of Hispanic culture will go to Catholic ceremonies to celebrate Día de Muertos.

In the end, the event held by the LLC was extraordinarily special. Not only was it incredibly informative and culturally rich, but it was also very intimate. I highly recommend attending it again next year and immersing yourself in any future opportunities of this kind to connect with the material being taught in class. Thank you to Lucia, Lidia and everyone at the LCC for making these sort of experiences possible.