Colorful flags and sugar skulls adorned the main entrance of the Kimmel Center for University Life from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 as part of a traditional altar created by NYU’s Mexican Student Association to celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Stern sophomore Heather Peña, who serves as treasurer of MexSA, said that the altar, or ofrenda, featured two tiers. The bottom tier was dedicated to victims of the recent earthquake in Mexico. The top tier included images of three Mexican icons: former President Benito Juárez and revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Comandanta Ramona. Strewn across both tiers were Mexican candies, pan dulce, marigolds and even Vicks VapoRub, among other items intended to create a homecoming for the deceased.
“We are inviting them back home and celebrating them, so we want to make it as colorful and inviting as it can be,” Peña said. “It has food for them to feast on, a blanket so they can rest and little things to remind them of home.”
Through the exhibit, Peña said that MexSA also hoped to dispel the popular belief that Día de los Muertos is simply “Mexican Halloween.”
“Halloween is treated as a night to be scared,” Peña said. “On Día de los Muertos, death is not feared; it is celebrated. There is no hostility towards death and spirits. Instead, we believe that spirits are returning home to be with their families. For people to treat Día de Muertos in the same regard as Halloween is disrespectful. Especially if it’s for the sake of wearing a cute costume, it reduces our culture to nothing but an aesthetic.”
Peña said she hoped the altar would bring the holiday to life for students who were unfamiliar with the celebration.
“A lot of students here haven’t been exposed to an altar or the celebrations in real life,” Peña said. “Hopefully, this will make it more tangible for them and reinforce that Día de los Muertos actually belongs to a culture and is respected.”
Tisch sophomore Maddie Newel stopped by the installation and said that she appreciated the cultural significance of the altar.
“I like that it gives you a window — and this one’s a very visual, colorful, fun window — into another culture,” Newel said.
In addition to the altar, MexSA also hosted an event on Nov. 2 that delved into the roots and regional variations of Día de los Muertos. According to Peña, attendees had a chance to decorate sugar skulls and leave letters to their loved ones on the altar.
Peña said MexSA members hope to organize the installation and event again in future years to continue raising awareness and respect for the holiday.
“We hope that students will look forward to seeing the altar each year, and we’ll be able to educate more students about the holiday,” Peña said.
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