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Students Learn to Celebrate Life by Honoring the Dead

{mosimage}Skulls and sweets sit side by side for Dia de los Muertos.

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{mosimage}The students in Professor Araceli Ardon’s Spanish class at Westmont are having what one could almost call a party. Crepe paper decorates a white platform, flowers are set out, carefully manufactured decorations are laid carefully alongside the flowers. There’s a little food, some conversation.

The guests of honor? The souls of the dearly departed. For Ardon’s class, it’s Dia de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead. 

The Mexican tradition is a conflation of two ancient traditions, said Ardon, a visiting professor from Mexico.

“When the Spaniards came to Tenochtitlan in 1520, they found a big city,” she said. Tenochtitlan, where Mexico City is today, was comparable with the European cities in its time, with advanced technology, about 200,000 inhabitants and a flourishing Aztec culture.

One of the traditions that was strong with the Aztecs was their practice of communing with their dead, a tradition that expressed the idea of death as another part of life, not as the end of it, according to Ardon. It was a ritual the Christian Spaniards first tried to eliminate. But, finding that they couldn’t, they moved it to coincide with the Christian All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, where it lives on.

{mosimage}Participants construct a temporary altar with the effects of their departed. Skulls and skeletons figure heavily in the décor, but not in the scary or dreary way they’re used in Halloween or horror movies; typically they’re bright and festive, and often created in a way that depicts something of the person being honored.

“It’s more like a celebration of life,” said Laura Schelvis, one of Ardon’s students. Dia de los Muertos celebrations often involve music, dancing, images of the deceased and plenty of reminiscences of the departed’s life.

The point is to feel closer to deceased, to keep them in the family and circle of friends, said Ardon.

“We even eat their favorite foods,” she said.

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