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Día de los Muertos event offers space for reflection amid pandemic

On Sunday, November 1, Carleton’s Latin American Student Organization (LASO) held their annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) service—from afar. Rather than an upbeat celebration in the Great Hall complete with a couple hundred attendees and plenty of food, this year’s service was a reflective memorial held over Zoom.

Information and Technology Services (ITS) assisted with streaming live footage from the Chapel, where the centerpiece was the beautiful Día de los Muertos altar. As is traditional during this celebration of the dead, the altar was decorated with colorful skulls, skeleton figurines and memorials to deceased loved ones. 

Jocelyn Franco ’22, LASO co-president, and Mel Vazquez ’22, event coordinator, led the event from the Chapel, where they read remembrances and lit a candle on the altar for each one. Aldo Polanco ’22 helped lead via Zoom.

This year’s Día de los Muertos was attended by a more tight-knit group of just over two dozen students, mostly LASO members and student Chaplain’s Associates. The event began with the screening of videos introducing the holiday. Next came the offering of remembrances, which students could submit in real time via a Google Form. Some remembrances focused on communal experiences of loss such as the COVID-19 pandemic, while others commemorated individual family members and friends.

The event was bittersweet for many LASO members, who missed the in-person celebration but appreciated the event’s reflective focus during a year that, for many, has been filled with loss.

“Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life—you honor those you’ve lost and one of the best things about the holiday is that you get to spend the day with others and share your loss with them,” said Sandy Ramirez ’24, LASO’s first-year representative. “This Día De Los Muertos event wasn’t like that. Firstly, people couldn’t be around each other, and secondly, the event wasn’t super lively and high-spirited.” 

“The event itself was quiet, peaceful and respectful of all the lives lost before and during the pandemic,” she continued. “I actually really liked and appreciated that aspect of the event. The pandemic took a lot from all of us, not just family and friends but important moments like these that we’d love to spend in the presence of others. I think everyone in LASO was pretty spot-on in acknowledging that and adapting the event to accommodate for it.”

Franco felt similarly about the event. “I think more than ever, this Día de los Muertos event was especially significant as a space to reflect,” she said.  For this reason, she added, the service was “special to me despite how different it was to past years.” 

A typical Día de los Muertos event at Carleton would include catered food from El Triunfo, student performances and often the Northfield area Aztec dancers, Kalpulli Ollin Ayacaxtly, according to Chaplain Carolyn Fure-Slocum. A few Latinx families from Northfield would often attend. None of that was possible this year due to COVID-19. 

“Despite the lack of many of our usual parts of the service, the gathering was very meaningful this year, remembering the many lives lost to the pandemic, racial injustice, fires and hurricanes, as well as individual loved ones,” Fure-Slocum said.  “LASO leaders did a beautiful job in making it a reflective moment for us all.” 

For LASO Secretary Juan Zhang Yang ’22, this was his first time participating in Día de los Muertos at Carleton. The holiday, which is most prominent in Mexico, is not widely celebrated in his home country of Chile. Yang said that although he wished there could have been food and people having fun together, “I felt the emotion and the energy of the Latinx/Hispanic community here at Carleton. It was beautiful to see.”

Students celebrate with wall art in a dorm.
Photo by Lane Maitland.

Ramirez, who is Salvadoran, said that her family also does not celebrate the festive version of Día de los Muertos that is typical in Mexico. This year’s quiet memorial was more fitting with how she would typically observe the holiday at home.

“For Salvadorans, we mourn the loss of our loved ones individually or with our families, not publically in a festival or anything like that,” Ramirez explained. “So when Jocelyn was reading out the remembrances people had written for their loved ones, and Mel lit the candles in honor of them, it made me feel safe and at home. Because I didn’t get to spend Día De Los Muertos with my family this year, that was a very important feeling to have.”

Vazquez also reflected on the importance of the event given that students cannot be with their families to celebrate. “Día de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated in family units, and I consider the LASO Board a type of adoptive family on campus,” she said. “So I still felt like I was able to celebrate to the fullest extent given my resources and the COVID-19 regulations.”

For Vazquez, it was an unexpected plus to hold the event in the Chapel this year instead of the Great Hall. “Having the Chapel space felt like an honor since the LASO-sponsored altar did not have to share space with more daily arrangements like it normally would at Sayles,” she said. “This way, I felt that the Día de los Muertos altar was honored a little more than it normally is.”

The altar remained in the Chapel from Sunday evening until Thursday.

The event’s organizers were mindful of COVID-19 precautions. Face-to-face contact while setting up the altar was limited to LASO Board members who are part of the same social pod, according to Franco. She was comfortable co-hosting the event with Vazquez, as the two are roommates. The remote nature of the event kept it not only safe, but also accessible to LASO members who are not on campus this term.

Ramirez credited the Board members’ hard work with allowing the event to run smoothly under the unusual circumstances. Franco also thanked Fure-Slocum for helping make the service possible despite the COVID-19 precautions. The event was co-sponsored by both LASO and the Chaplain’s Office.

Aldo Polanco ’22 contributed to this article.

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