The people are bringing life to ‘Day Of The Dead’

sugar skulls

By Titus Medley/ Staff Reporter

Every Nov. 2, Amarillo College graduate Salvador Gutierrez gets in touch with his grandfather. The reunion takes place despite the fact that Gutierrez’ grandfather is dead. Guitierrez and his family create an altar in honor of his grandfather. They set out his favorite foods and some items that remind them of him such as a pair of boots, a hat and a truck toy to represent his job as a truck driver. Then they wait for his spirit to arrive.

“The tradition says they come around midnight so what we do, and this sets the mood, we play his favorite music around 11:30. I can feel his spirit. I remember him,” Gutierrez said.

The Latin American holiday Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead combines religious belief with cultural traditions to celebrate deceased loved ones. “During this multiday event, friends, families, and communities gather to celebrate the lives of loved ones by creating altars, or ofrendas, that are designed to encourage souls to visit,” according to Dr. Beth Garcia, director of teacher preparation and certification at West Texas A&M University “Typically, ofrendas contain the favorite food and beverages of the loved one, nourishment for the long journey from the after-life, as well as bright candles and flowers that light the way,” Garcia said.

Gutierrez said he has celebrated Day of the Dead as long as he can remember. “I believe my family has been doing it for generations. I remember going to my grandma’s house as a little kid where she had this huge altar with all of her dead sibling’s pictures as well as her grandmother and other people. It’s really cool,” he said.

In Latin American communities, during Day of the Dead, graveyards are packed full of people remembering their loved ones. Another tradition is baking and eating pan del muerto or bread of the dead. “It’s a Mexican piece of sweet bread in the shape of a circle with shapes and sugar that resemble bones,” Gutierrez said. In American pop culture, sugar skulls and painted faces are the most identifiable symbols of the holiday. Many Americans know the traditions best from blockbuster films such as “Coco” and “The Book of Life.”

Daniela Gurrola, a finance major, started celebrating Day of the Dead with her family after they watched “Coco” following the sudden, violent death of Gurrola’s uncle. “The movie brought comfort to my mom and really opened her eyes to the holiday. We set out pictures of the family members that have passed on a homemade altar. Then we set out each family members’ favorite dishes as an offering. Finally we say a prayer and then move on with our day. I think in a way, it allowed us to understand death in an easier way,” Gurrola said. 

It is no coincidence that Dia De Los Muertos comes just a few days after Halloween. Catholic missionaries who colonized the Americas brought with them feast days, or days dedicated to the remembrance of a specific person or event, including All Saints and All Souls day. Falling on Nov.1 and 2 respectively, these days follow Oct. 31, which is an important day in many indigenous American cultures. Modern day Halloween and Dia De Los Muertos celebrations evolved into the holidays celebrated simultaneously. Different cultural influences and belief systems account for the variations, while the common ancestry accounts for their similarities in these celebrations. 

Each year, the AC visual arts department hosts a Dia De Los Muertos student art show to mark the holiday. Housed in the Common Lobby Gallery inside the Concert Hall Theatre in the music building on the Washington Street Campus, this event gives students a chance to gain gallery experience. Steve Cost, art professor and gallery coordinator, said that displaying their work in a gallery setting allows students to practice showing their art to the public and receiving praise and criticism. The pieces will be on display Oct. 31 through Nov. 14.

Although it focuses on death, Gurrola said Day of the Dead is a happy occasion for remembering loved ones. “It gives us a day to reflect on the good times and how much they affected our lives,” she said.

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