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Bringing Día de los Muertos to BYU

Photo of an altar.

You may have heard of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a holiday celebrated 1 and 2 November that blends Mesoamerican and Catholic European traditions to commemorate loved ones who have passed away. To honor these ancestors, an altar or ofrenda (offering) is built to offer safe passage to the souls of those who have passed to visit once a year. Skulls and skeletons are a common symbol of Día de los Muertos—especially La Catrina, a female skeleton dressed in fine clothing. Food offerings, sweets, beverages, flowers, toys (for children), and holy symbols are placed on the altar, along with photos of loved ones, to invite the spirits to join us once again for a happy celebration.

But did you know that Día de los Muertos is now celebrated all across BYU campus?

One of the first groups to celebrate Día de los Muertos at BYU was the Museum of Peoples and Cultures, which has hosted an event for the holiday for many years.

More recently, Rita Cortez, Managing Director of the Chinese Flagship Center, began to celebrate Día de los Muertos at BYU. “For years,” Cortez says, “I had been setting up my personal Day of the Dead ofrenda at my home, and about five years ago I just decided to share the beauty of this holiday with the BYU campus (mostly my College of Humanities) so that others could enjoy it. Initially, I covered the costs of refreshments, fliers, etc. myself each year. After a couple of years, Aaron Rose from the Kennedy Center approached me to ask if I’d like to set up my ofrenda in their building since I’d outgrown the JFSB and offered to have the Kennedy Center help with marketing costs.”

Aaron Rose, an ISP Program Coordinator at the Kennedy Center, says, “When I met Rita Cortez, we decided to join forces. She is La Catrina of BYU!” Under Cortez and Rose's direction, the lobby of the Kennedy Center hosted an ofrenda and informational posters for several years. More events were added over time, such as musical performances.

Word of these various celebrations grew, and in recent years, more departments, institutions, and offices across campus expressed interest in participating. This year, more than a dozen different events, activities, and ofrendas are being hosted across campus. “It’s grown beyond what I ever dreamed,” Cortez says.

Rose says he hopes that, by celebrating Día de los Muertos, “people will connect with their ancestors and their family—this is the main focus of the holiday. Historically, Mesoamericans honestly believed that the spirits of their deceased revisited them at this time, so the families would leave out food and drink for them to replenish their thirsty souls. Today, I think most people celebrate as a form of Memorial Day by honoring and remembering their loved ones who have passed on. We tell family stories while sitting around and having some pan de muertos [a special bread made for the holiday] and hot chocolate together. I think it is an important holiday for people of any culture who would like to celebrate it. It is not hard to build an altar and put some ofrendas out for ancestors; you can do it for any culture. As someone of mixed ethic heritage, we have pictures of our Mexican and non-Mexican ancestors on the altar.”

Rose continues, “My father-in-law just passed away two weeks ago, so he is the newest member of our family altar. We placed a handsome young photo of him graduating from high school in his graduation robes on the altar. We tell people he just graduated to heaven!”

This holiday is important because it is “about life, family, and love for our ancestors!” Cortez says. “This applies to everyone and extends beyond any cultural boundaries. Truly the spirit of Elijah is at work here as people are excited and desire ’to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers’ (D&C 110:15). Though the holiday is celebrated heavily in Mexico, all of us have family, all of us love our grandparents and great-grand parents, and that love inspires us to search for our ancestors and complete saving ordinances for them. We all have a familial connection to those we love. The holiday is a beautiful historical and cultural celebration of life and family connectivity.”

She concludes, “It is a joy to decorate, set up my ofrenda, and think of my loved ones as I put up their photos each year. It is so fun watching people as they come through and view the ofrenda, leave notes to their loved ones who have passed, and take photos at the ofrenda together with other friends and family. It's rewarding and beautiful. I have a sign above my door at home that says, ‘La Familia Es Todo.’ Family is everything.”

To celebrate Día de los Muertos this year, bring a photo of an ancestor or a loved one who has passed on to add to the ofrenda in the Kennedy Center, or participate in any of the other campus activities through 4 November.