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Aztec dancers in feather headdresses and ayoyote anklets swayed lively in twirls and high steps that led the procession outside the César E. Chávez Center for Higher Education at Cal Poly Pomona.
The lead dancer held an urn up to the sky, with her orange-brown feather headdress parallel to the horizon. The urn symbolized the elements of water, wind, fire and earth. The horn signaled the dancers to kneel down. The pounding drums softened. Each dance is a prayer to the Creator.
Behind the dancers was papel picado, or perforated paper streamers, hung on strings in the sky. Individuals in sugar skull face paint carried calacas and calaveras poised on sticks, their half-masked faces symbolized the purpose of the event: the welcoming of the dead among the living.
The Día de los Muertos festival at CPP was celebrated Friday and included Aztec dancers, Japanese Taiko drummers, Ballet Folklórico, African dance, spoken word and local band Chicano Batman. This year, the event marked its 20th anniversary and drew a crowd of over 800 students, alumni, family and friends.
The festival also included face painting, a photo booth, a paper butterflies work station and homemade food.
Twenty-eight educational altars made by students included offerings of candles, marigold flowers (believed to call the spirits) and picture frames. Each altar brought a social issue to light. Some honored the deaths of orphans in foster care, undocumented students, victims of violence like those in Ferguson, Missouri, immigrants crossing the border and cheap laborers like the women in Juarez, Mexico.
A tall purple altar, created by Professor Gilbert Cadena’s ethic and women’s studies class, illuminated the center field to honor civil rights leaders in America. The altar included Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Toyohiko Kagawa, Dorothy Day and Oscar Zeta Acosta.
Cadena, a founder of CPP’s Día de los Muertos festival, described the campus’s transformation from one intimate and cultural community altar to an even larger community and social experience of nearly 30 altars made by cultural centers, clubs, organizations and classes.
CPP alumnus Ricardo Ortega (’06, ethnic and multicultural studies), who is now the coordinator of the Multicultural Center at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, brought an altar from SLO to recognize the 43 Mexican students that disappeared in southern Mexico in September. In addition, Ortega founded the Dream Scholarship for undocumented students at CPP. The event raised $1,400 for the scholarship, a step-up from last year’s $1,200.
Carlos Arévalo, another alumnus, came back to perform as Chicano Batman’s guitar player. The band, which offers an old-school Latino sound, is reminiscent of the meaning of Día de los Muertos as the players commemorated Latino musicians during the 70s and 80s through their outfits and instrumentation.
Through music, bass player Eduardo Arenas said that the band intends to allow people to start communicating on the basis of love.
Chávez Center Coordinator Lorena Marquez said that the motivation to continue to do this event comes from the adage, “We only truly die when we are forgotten.”
“We don’t want to forget those that have passed,” said Marquez. “We want to honor them.”
In general, Día de los Muertos events like the one at Hollywood Forever Cemetery reveal the commercialization of the event.
“[Usually], you’ll see more vendors than you see altars, because people are trying to sell Día de los Muertos,” said Marquez.
However, Marquez said that the university community is able to adhere to the academic aspect and the significance of the altars by limiting the event to five vendors that sold Mexican jewelry, trinkets, bags and calaveras. This limit ensured thatthe academic aspect of the event was the main attraction.
“I like to look at it as a historical landscape,” said fourth-year gender, ethnic and multicultural studies student Jason Tena. “Of course it’s a different form with different participants, but ultimately it’s recapturing the roots.”