Like most people, I’ve lost many friends and family members — my dad, my sister, my grandparents, my best friend, my in-laws, five uncles and numerous close friends and colleagues — over the years, and I’ve always wished for one more day with them. So, every year for decades, I’ve attended Día de los Muertos events as my own personal way to remember the happy times with my lost loved ones. 

This Mexican holiday, traditionally celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, is a joyful event that cheers my soul. That’s why I pitched the idea of a Día de los Muertos event that would be open to the public and hosted by UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology, the school with the largest percentage of Latino students at UCI.

Thanks to the school’s dean, Jon Gould, Northgate González Market, our presenting sponsor, and UCI’s Latinx Resource Center, our event sponsor, the idea became reality on Nov. 2 when more than 1,000 students, faculty, staff and community members converged on the Irvine Barclay Theatre for the School of Social Ecology’s first Día de los Muertos event. 

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Complete with a colorful altar, lovingly created by members of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán), honoring students’ loved ones who have died; a packed performance by the two-time Grammy Award winning Mariachi Divas, a moving opening ceremony by Danza Azteca Toyaacan; the student Ballet Folklorico de UCI who performed dances representing eight of Mexico’s regions; a couple of songs by singer Yelka Gonzalez-Vargas, a performance by students from three elementary schools in Anaheim; sugar skulls that were made by UCI School of Education students studying to become bilingual teachers; face-painting; and tamales, pan de muerto (sweet bread) and champurrado (hot chocolate) from Northgate, the free event struck a chord in my heart as well as many others.

One attendee cried as she told me how much it meant to her.

“I was very emotional,” Laura Hernandez told me. 

The 51-year-old real estate agent from Costa Mesa attended the event with her 8-year-old daughter Miranda. “The Mariachi Divas were amazing, all the performers were amazing, the tamales from Northgate were so good. We loved the face painting and all the activities and the beautiful altar. Everyone was so positive, in a really great mood. I am so grateful I was able to introduce my daughter to something traditional from our heritage. It felt like I was in Mexico.”

Wiping away tears, Hernandez continued: “The most important thing was the amazing cultural representation. What an opportunity to inspire kids like my daughter to aspire to be students at UCI.”

That was one of the main reasons we wanted our event open to the public.

“This event is for you, your families, and members of the community,” Michelle Sanchez and Brianna Duran, MEChA co-chairs told the audience in English and Spanish. “Most importantly it is to live and breathe culture. It is essential that our representation remains strong on our campus in order to cultivate a passionate atmosphere where we see ourselves reflected in higher education.”

The roots of Día de los Muertos go back thousands of years to rituals honoring the dead. The Aztecs and other Nahua people living in what is now central Mexico held a cyclical view of the universe, seeing death as an integral, ever-present part of life. In rituals honoring the dead, family members provide food, water and other offerings on their loved ones’ graves, or set them out on altars, called ofrendas, in their homes. 

Our student-created altar was beautifully decorated with pictures of their deceased loved ones, candles, cempasúchil (marigolds) and Mexican serapes (blankets). The ofrenda served as the centerpiece of the day. It was flanked by a moving poem written by Manuel Gomez, social ecology alumnus and UCI emeritus vice chancellor of student affairs; a digital altar, featuring dedications submitted by members of the public; and a prayer wall, where guests tied messages for their loved ones onto marigolds on the wall.

Losing loved ones is universal. Why not set aside a day to celebrate their lives and remember what they meant to us? We plan to do it again next year. 

Meanwhile, the closing lines from Gomez’ poem:

Somos solo una rama (We are all one branch)
Solo una Raza Humana (One human race)
Que lucha y ama (That struggles and loves)

Mimi Ko Cruz is director of communications for UCI’s School of Social Ecology. She served as co-chair of the school’s Día de los Muertos Planning Committee.

Photos by Karen Tapia and Greg Andersen / courtesy UCI School of Social Ecology

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