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'A celebration of life': ALAS honors Día de los Muertos at MU

Hilary Gonzales, left, and Sandra Vasquez make "papel picado," or perforated paper on Wednesday at Memorial Union in Columbia. Papel Picado represents the wind element when celebrating Día de los Muertos.
Olivia Anderson
Hilary Gonzales, left, and Sandra Vasquez make "papel picado," or perforated paper on Wednesday at Memorial Union in Columbia. Papel Picado represents the wind element when celebrating Día de los Muertos.

An atmosphere of sentimental joy filled room N204 at Memorial Student Union on Wednesday evening as members of the Association of Latin American Students (ALAS) gathered to celebrate el Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, to commemorate the lives of deceased loved ones.

Up against a wall stood the 'ofrenda,' a colorful altar with photos of the members' friends and family who had died. On the altar sat objects to represent the four natural elements: earth, wind, fire and water.

Plastic candles were placed at the table to symbolize fire, and light the pathway of their loved ones on their way back home, along with a glass of water "to calm the thirst of the souls ones from their journey," Joanna Rodelo, co-director of ALAS, said. Sand and food represented the earth element.

Before the event, members of ALAS gathered around a black round table cutting 'papel picado,' colorful paper banners to represent the element of wind in the 'ofrenda.'

Orange paper marigolds, or 'cempasuchils,' decorated the rest of the 'ofrenda.' Rodelo explained the color of the flower represents the feeling of celebrating life, instead of mourning the death of a loved one.

Sitting at tables across the room, ALAS members shared 'Pan de Muerto,' or Bread of the Dead, a traditional sweet bread baked during the period of celebration.

The holiday, which holds historical indigenous roots in Mexico, is celebrated on Nov. 1-2. Every year, those with Mexican heritage and people throughout Latin America and the Philippines honor loved ones who have passed away.

This year, ALAS organized the event to commemorate the holiday in what Rodelo described as an opportunity to get together and honor those who have passed with an added sense of community.

"Especially because we're in college, away from our families, it's a day for us to come together and celebrate it, too. I consider all of us family," Rodelo said in a presentation for members, where she explained the origins and symbolisms of the tradition.

Rodelo said the celebration of the holiday has helped her come to terms with the passing of her 'abuela,' or grandmother, and her dog. "I was still mourning those losses. Losing them felt like I lost a part of myself," she told the Missourian. "It has been game-changing to start celebrating this wonderful and amazing day."

Although she has not had a chance to visit her grandmother's grave, she said she plans to, expecting to "feel what I feel today here, but at her grave," as if she was still present.

Several attendees shared during Rodelo's presentation that ALAS was the reason why they've adopted the holiday's traditions, the organization providing them the opportunity to celebrate it for the first time.

ALAS member Autumn White said that despite not being part of the Latin American community herself, she attended the event in support of her friend, Rebecca Rico, who told her about the holiday and what it meant to her. "I wanted to participate this year, so I brought a photo in and everything," White said.

White also said although she's new to the celebrations, "it doesn't feel spiritually distant. Especially after learning what it means and the tradition behind it, I can understand it."

Rico painted her face as 'La Catrina,' an elegant, female skull that is also a symbol of the celebration meant to represent that death erases all differences, and "at the end of the day, we're all bones," ALAS member Hilary Gonzales said.

"I wanted to do it because it's my favorite holiday and my aunt, which is the picture I put (at the ofrenda), went all out with any holiday and event," Rico said. "That is how she raised me for a good amount of my life and this is how I honor her."

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.
Valerie Nava is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a social justice reporter for the Columbia Missourian.
Claudia Rivera Cotto is reporter for the social justice beat and an investigative and data journalism master’s student at the University of Missouri.
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