For those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the homage to their deceased loved ones often comes in the form of a skull made of sugar and decorated with icing, beads and colored foil.
The skulls, along with flowers, photographs and favorite foods of the deceased, are staples of the altars erected for remembrance that stems from traditions started more than 500 years ago in Mexico.
“The calavera, or skeleton face, represents death, but over the years it has become this play on death,” says Professor Gilbert Cadena, chair of the Ethnic & Women’s Studies Department.
Those celebrating Dia de Los Muertos would buy the sugar skulls at a local bakery at one time, but nowadays they create and decorate them themselves, Cadena says.
“It allows you to participate and create something, but it also gives you something to think about,” he says. “It’s a way to remember.”
Cal Poly Pomona will host its 22nd annual Dia de los Muertos event Friday, Nov. 4 from 5 to 9 p.m. in the Bronco Commons.
For thousands of years before it was dubbed Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America, honored those who had passed on with ceremonies. When Spanish conquistadores brought Catholicism and Christianity to the region, they initially banned native traditions, Cadena says. They then established a Catholic version known as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day that ultimately blended with the traditions of the native people to form the holiday celebrated today.
The free event on campus will feature over 30 multicultural altars, an Aztec blessing, folklorico dancers, Taiko drummers and spoken word performances. Mariachi Los Broncos de Pomona will perform, as will Mexico 68, an Afrobeat orchestra that will serve as the headliner. Food will be available for purchase at booths sponsored by student organizations, and parking is $7. Face painting will be available from 1 to 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the César E. Chávez Center for Higher Education.
Angelica Ibarra, interim coordinator of the Chávez Center, says a student will stand at every altar to teach visitors the significance of each piece on display.
“We are educating future generations,” Ibarra says. “The more we put into these events, the more we learn. Being involved in Dia de los Muertos will stay with you forever.”
Money raised from the Latino Faculty Staff and Students Association’s sale of Dia de los Muertos t-shirts will help fund the DREAM scholarship program for undocumented students, she says.
The event has grown and evolved since Cadena assigned the first celebration in the mid-1990s as a project for one of his classes.
Those first students built a large altar in the quad. The altars typically honor individual families, but in recent years groups of students have paid tribute to civil rights activists, Native American children who died in boarding schools, and Mexican immigrants who died trying to cross the border into the United States, Cadena says.
Dia de los Muertos is not a time to party, but a time to reflect, he says.
“It’s a way to give thanks, share stories of what’s happening in the world and share memories,” he says. “We are remembering those who have died, but we recognize that we also are celebrating life.”
Students who would like to volunteer for the Dia de los Muertos event should contact Angelica Ibarra at the César E. Chávez Center for Higher Education at (909) 869-5039.