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OU Honors Hispanic Culture with Day of the Dead Festival

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, OU hosts a street festival for the Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday that celebrates life.

The Day of the Dead folkloric tale is so full of traditions a little on the macabre side — graves, skeletons, souls rising from the dead to roam the streets — it might be easy to forget the most important part of it. 

The Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is actually a seasonal celebration of life.

During the day, participants visit cemeteries and build ofrendas, or altars dedicated to their deceased loved ones, said Crystal Garcia, assistant director of Student Life at the University of Oklahoma and organizer of the annual celebration.

“It is literally like what we do for Memorial Day; we go to cemeteries and we put flowers on the grave,” she said. “Then we just kind of pay tribute to them. It’s that exact same thing — times 10.”

For the third year in a row, Garcia has worked to bring the rituals and the festival surrounding them to the University of Oklahoma campus to cap off Hispanic Heritage Month. OU students, faculty and staff as well as the public can participate in the event, held from 6-10 p.m. Oct. 31 at the Walker Adams Mall.

What to expect

You’ll see costumes and dozens of faces painted to resemble calaveras, or the sugar skulls adorned with elaborate and colorful designs. Garcia said the face painting is one tradition OU carried over from the traditional Day of the Dead, in which people paint their faces to blend in with their loved ones who’ve risen from the grave. 

 

Day of the Dead participant in sugar skull makeup
A Dia de los Muertos participant shows off her sugar skull makeup. Photo by Astrud Reed.



Traditions connected to Day of the Dead include family members building private altars called ofrendas that honor the deceased. The ofrendas are decorated using sugar skulls, marigolds and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. The family members visit the graves with these as gifts and leave possessions of the deceased.

Although OU hosts its Dia de los Muertos on Oct. 31, the actual Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico and other countries on Nov. 1 and 2. On the first night, the souls of the children rise from the grave, and on the second, the souls of the adults return.

OU’s Day of the Dead is geared toward college students and children, with free admission, face painting, food vendors, a ferris wheel and even llamas in costume (llamas are a symbolic animal in many Hispanic cultures). The group Yumare will perform a folkloric dance, and local bands Tequila Azul and Clips and Hips will perform.

“Just looking at it, seeing people dressed up and having their faces painted, naturally you get an audience and people come in,” Garcia said. And they might not remember what the Day of the Dead is but at least they know that they had a good time and they come back next year.”

 

Day of the Dead decorations
Day of the Dead adornments make for an authentic celebration at the University of Oklahoma. Photo by Astrud Reed.

 

Hispanic Heritage Month

Dia de los Muertos is part of a bigger picture of Hispanic life at the University of Oklahoma. Organized through Student Life and the Hispanic American Student Association, along with student and event chair Daisy Ramirez, the one-day festival is just one of several events to take place throughout the month. The first day of Hispanic Heritage month, Sept. 15, commemorated the anniversary of the independence of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico’s Independence Day was Sept. 16 and Chile’s Independence Day was Sept. 18.

“Here at the university we really want to make people aware of the various Hispanic cultures that exist on campus,” Garcia said. “We have a lot of different cultures represented, and a lot of the time I think people tend to think that there’s only one.”

Garcia said events like this year’s midday mariachi band was one of the most popular, with members serenading students with their trumpets, violin, guitarron and vihuela at the Oklahoma Memorial Union.

“Some people were just so surprised; they’ve never seen a mariachi band,” she said. “And sometimes even I forget, these experiences for other people can really be meaningful."

OU’s Hispanic Heritage Month also offered students a chance to take part in the Colombian Student Association’s events featuring horseback riding, and an opportunity to hear how the LGBT community is affected in Hispanic cultures with the lecture “Pedagogies of the Brown Queer.”

“It’s a hard transition (for Hispanic students) because most of our students come from predominantly Hispanic schools," Garcia said. "So I think all around, we want to create this sense of unity on campus regardless of culture, even though we are using culture to do it.” 

“We hope those who come out and enjoy our events will leave with a sense of understanding about culture and also an appreciation just for their fellow students and the different experiences we all have and the experiences we all share.”

Want to know more about the people you'll see at OU's Day of the Dead event this year? Check out these feature stories on jewelry maker Yoana Walschap and artist Eleazar Velazquez.

Featured photo by Astrud Reed.