UC Berkeley Chicanx studies students showcase altars for Día de los Muertos

Amanda Ramirez/Staff

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For two days, a gallery in Wurster Hall at UC Berkeley transformed into a celebration of the dead, full of brightly colored altars and “pan de muerto” to honor relatives and loved ones who have died.

Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” is a Mexican holiday that draws from Indigenous traditions, honoring those who have died and celebrating their memory. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, communities build altars with offerings of food, decorations and sentimental objects to deceased individuals.

Jesus Barraza said that instead of building altars in the cemetery according to tradition, the 37 students in his Chicanx studies “Spirituality as Resistance” class spent all of last week researching their families’ histories and designing altars to be viewed by the public in Wurster Hall’s gallery. Barraza said Chicanx Latinx Student Development and Casa Magdalena Mora, among other Latinx organizations, also helped organize the event.

About 30 minutes after the gallery opened to the public, Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, director of Chicanx Latinx Student Development, directed everyone to the courtyard, where campus group Danza in Xochitl in Cuicatl performed a traditional dance. Afterward, the crowd filed back into the gallery, where Barraza and other organizers gave speeches before serving pan dulce and pupusas.

“I think right now a lot of people have seen ‘Coco’ and know the history of Día de los Muertos, but here’s an actual representation of contemporary Día de los Muertos and how people are celebrating it today,” Barraza said.

Instead of family members, Barraza said some students decided to dedicate their altars to Latin Americans who died crossing the border into the United States or to various groups of oppressed people. One altar was dedicated to the people killed in the Las Vegas mass shooting in October 2017 and was decorated with yellow flowers and a framed memorial with the words “#VegasStrong.”

Barraza’s student Lulu Matute built an altar at the gallery that honors women who have “poured light and love into my life.” Matute honored several women including her Tía Estelita, Abuelita Matute, Mama Fela and Doña Justa. Matute said she wanted to “symbolize” these women, so below a framed picture of her aunt Estella, she placed her aunt’s favorite cigarette and a small porcelain mug representing her love for coffee and tea.

“These are real people with stories, and I hope that they (the public) can look at these people and … bear witness to this offering that we’re doing for our ancestors,” Matute said.

Matute emphasized that Día de los Muertos is “not limited to anyone,” highlighting the Chinese culture-inspired altar near the entrance to the gallery.

“That’s the beautiful thing about living in the States, this sharing of cultures and traditions and building on them and being inspired,” Matute said. “So I think that’s really important.”

Throughout the gallery, there’s a visible theme of bright colors that Gallegos-Diaz attributed to the Mexican community’s openness to discussing death.

“Death is part of living, so for us (Día de los Muertos is) to understand that cycle of life and do it in a collective manner together,” Gallego-Diaz said. “This (death) is part of life, …  and to normalize its part as part of things that happen in the world is really important.”

Contact Sabina Mahavni at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sabina_mahavni.