Dia de los Muertos gets political

Dia de los Muertos, in Mexican culture, is a celebration of life through death.

Amber Schadewald

Amid skulls decorated with shining sequins, candles and an array of brightly colored flowers, La Raza added something new to their altar for Dia de los Muertos Wednesday.

The Latino student group decided to incorporate photos of protesting students, Paul Wellstone and the words “battlefield immigration” to the altar, or ofrenda, which nearly covered an entire wall in their Coffman Union office for Day of the Dead.

The theme of this year’s altar is “The Death of Chicana/Latina Students at the U?” and members of La Raza hope it will educate people about the issues at the University that are affecting the Latino community.

Last year, La Raza’s altar depicted the “death” of General College and the Dream Act, an act that would give what the group refers to as undocumented immigrant students in-state tuition.

Martha Ockenfels-Martinez, intercultural center representative for La Raza, said this year the group wanted to address the barriers that limit access to the University for Latinos and Chicanos in a broader sense.

Sylvia Gonzalez, La Raza youth and community outreach coordinator, said the University’s recent strategic planning efforts are to blame – specifically, the closing of General College, which had served as a gateway to higher education for many members of the Latino community.

“We’re here now, but what kind of message is the University sending to us when they’re shutting the doors to our people?” Ockenfels-Martinez, said. “It doesn’t create a welcoming atmosphere.”

Ockenfels-Martinez said the group is not trying to be morbid by talking about the issue on the holiday and isn’t implying “our people are dead here at the University.”

The theme of the altar is meant to be a call to action, she said.

“It’s about raising awareness and consciousness so that we can move forward and figure out the next steps,” Ockenfels-Martinez, said.

Mixing politics and culture

Dia de los Muertos is the way in which the Mexican culture celebrates life through death.

Sylvia Lemus Sharma, a community member who will discuss the significance of the holiday with students at a La Raza event Thursday, said the Day of the Dead is often misunderstood.

People who are unfamiliar with the holiday see the skeletons and are afraid, she said, but the holiday is meant to be a way to celebrate and respect all forms of life and to remember “we are only here for a brief moment.”

“You are not really dead until no one remembers you,” Sharma said. “The Day of the Dead brings (the dead) back and remembers them.”

La Raza’s interpretation of the holiday puts a bit of a modern twist on the traditional practices but is still intended to be a cultural learning experience. The group has multiple events throughout the week, which included the annual Dia de los Muertos procession across campus Wednesday.

Grecia Zermeno, political science and global studies first-year student, helped arrange the altar Tuesday and said

although she likes the theme La Raza chose, it is very different from the experiences she had growing up.

Zermeno was born in Mexico and said the altars created there usually celebrated the lives of dead pop-culture icons, influential politicians and beloved family members. She thinks La Raza’s issue-driven altar is a good idea.

“It’s a great way to get messages out to the University community, to show the concerns that (we) as a group, Latinos, have,” she said.

Louis Mendoza, Chicano Studies department chairman, said he understands why students chose the theme and called it a “time of mourning for the state of Latinos on campus.”

According to the Office of Institutional Research, the number of Chicano and Latino students registered dropped from 612 in fall 2005 to 589 in fall 2006.

Mendoza said the University should be trying to increase diversity, not decrease it.

The College of Liberal Arts recently hired a K-12 outreach leader, which Mendoza called a positive step. At the same time, he said the closing of General College and the decrease in Latino students is sending mixed messages about diversity.

Mendoza said the administration should work toward a goal of being proportional to the state’s population of Latinos, which he said is about 4 percent.

He said that would mean the University has to add twice as many Latino students to campus.

Rusty Barceló, vice president and vice provost for equity and diversity at the University, has promised to examine the issue, and Mendoza said the proof lies in the future.

“I look forward to Dr. Barceló’s leadership on the issue,” he said.

Sharma said she is happy to see the students addressing today’s issues and called it a “creative expression that our culture is alive.”

“It’s nice to see the leadership of the next generation,” she said. We are “evolving our cultural roots in a sacred way, while honoring those who came before them in this institution.”

Ockenfels-Martinez said the important parts of the week’s events are to remember all those who fought to keep General College open and pass the Dream Act and “all those who will continue to fight year after year.”

“We’re honoring a living memory of an institution and respect for our roots and leaders,” she said.