Nick Ramirez ’14 stands beside his great-grandmother’s grave, surrounded by a sea of marigolds. The occasion is Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday when families gather to celebrate the lives of dead loved ones. While most students at Harvard-Westlake are busy planning their Halloween costumes, a few are preparing for Day of the Dead Nov. 1 and 2.
“Since we can’t visit our family members’ graves [in Mexico], we try to find other ways to honor them here,” Javier Orozco ’15 said. “We set up our own shrine in the living room, and on the two nights of Día de los Muertos we sit in front of it as a family and pay our respects and just hang out together.”
Day of the Dead originated in Mexico as a fusion of Catholic and indigenous beliefs. Mourning was not allowed because it was believed tears would make the spirit’s path slippery and treacherous, the cultural arts curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian Hayes Lavis said in an interview with NPR. The holiday has retained this sense of light-heartedness and is a time of merriment rather than grief.
Orozco lives in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Boyle Heights and looks forward all year to the nearby Day of the Dead festival in Mariachi Plaza.
“There are displays of shrines to the dead but also food stands and activities like mask making, paper cutting, and candy skull making,” Orozco said. “I’m usually just an observer, but we have different dances too, usually Aztec-style. You’re celebrating the dead as a whole so it just makes the holiday seem that much more special.”
Spanish teacher Javier Zaragoza compared Day of the Dead’s social role to that of Thanksgiving.
“A lot of people find it as an opportunity for family to get together,” Zaragoza said. “People travel to their hometown and visit, like Thanksgiving. It has the very same effect as Día de los Muertos. It’s not a sad day; it’s a day of remembrance.”
Orozco’s family is from Guadalajara, too far south for them to easily visit their relatives’ graves during Day of the Dead. Ramirez, on the other hand, has been driving down to Tijuana to celebrate with family since he was a little boy.
“When we go to TJ, we go to church and read the rosary, and we go to the cemetery,” Ramirez said. “If you’ve ever seen a Mexican cemetery, you’ll know they’re never green; they’re always so colorful. They just carpet the graves in red and yellow and pink. Also, since it is a feast holiday, we usually have menudo [a traditional Mexican soup].”
Orozco said the most important part of Day of the Dead is the opportunity to remember his family.
“Every year, the person I honor the most is my grandmother,” Orozco said. “She played a very important role in my life, though she died five years ago. I don’t have that many things that my grandma owned, apart from maybe a scarf or two, so instead of putting up things left from her I usually put up something I’ve made. Last year I made bracelets and wrote a poem, and I put that on the altar. Everyone in the family puts something up; my sister made this traditional Mexican candy.”
Karenina Juarez ’16 also commemorates her grandmother during Day of the Dead, and said she enjoys connecting with her heritage.
“It’s important to celebrate your ancestors and learn about the past, to keep the traditions alive,” Juarez said.
Juarez intends to continue celebrating Day of the Dead as an adult and anticipates even one day honoring her parents with her own children.
“Sometimes you lose someone very important, and you want to remember them,” Zaragoza said.
“In my case I lost four brothers. Now that I’m 58, I should have a little ceremony for my dad. I’ve lost all four of my grandparents, I’ve lost many friends. For many people, the holiday helps with that.”
Though Zaragoza stopped celebrating Day of the Dead in his early 20s, he said he still sporadically attends festivals.
“I’m still very connected to Día de los Muertos,” Zaragoza said. “I’m always very happy to see others celebrating. It brings back memories.”
Although few students at Harvard-Westlake celebrate Day of the Dead or even know what it is, Orozco said it doesn’t bother him.
“I don’t feel sad about it,” Orozco said. “Maybe it’s just because of where I live, but I do feel like people still continue to [celebrate Day of the Dead] and celebrate Mexican culture, and that makes me happy.”
Ramirez disagrees over Day of the Dead’s continuity.
“A lot of the celebration has died down,” Ramirez said. “I think it’s because Mexico has gotten much more Americanized. Even when I was a kid, there were a lot more traditional things you could buy during Día de los Muertos. I want Mexico to still keep its own culture. I see so much getting Americanized, mostly towards the border, but it’s creeping down towards the rest of the country.”
Ramirez said that as much as the loss of his heritage troubles him, he knows he will always be connected to Mexico in one form or another.
“When I die, they’ll probably put me in a box and send me back across the border to be buried in my family plot,” he said, laughing.