On Wednesday, October 3, University’s AP Spanish Language and Culture class, led by their teacher Mercedes Muñiz-Peredo, built an ofrenda, or altar, one of thousands built in anticipation of Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. 

Who did University students choose to dedicate their altar to? The inimitable Bob Ross.

The Day of the Dead’s Diverse Roots

Humor aside, this altar and others like it are an important means by which millions celebrate the dead and the life that others continue to lead. They’re also a testament to the value of diversity. The Day of the Dead originated in Mexico where ancient Aztec traditions intermingled with European customs – All Saints’ Day in particular – to produce a completely novel cultural practice.

On their excursion to the Eiteljorg Museum, where they constructed the ofrenda, Sra. Muñiz-Peredo explains how seemingly minor aspect of the Day of the Dead’s iconography connect with that diverse cultural heritage. The candles that many Latin Americans use to festoon ofrendas come from Catholic rites. The celebratory mood of the day – the feature that most distinguishes it from the way in which other cultures handle death – comes from pre-Columbian Aztec society. In contrast, the vibrantly colorful skulls, now a symbol of Mexican culture the world over, were added much later. As Sra. Muñiz-Peredo puts it, these skulls “went viral” in the early twentieth century when José Guadalupe Posada, a cartoonist, used them to lampoon Mexico’s elites. Now, the Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Latin America, with each country adding its own unique flare to the traditional format.

The Value of Cultural Exchange

Just as the Day of the Dead evolved as it spread southward from Mexico to other Latin American countries, the holiday continues to develop as Hollywood spreads its popularity globally. The most notable example of this is Pixar’s Coco, from 2016, a film that follows Miguel as he ventures into the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather. Coco represents, as some have noted, one of the most authentic depictions of Mexican culture produced in America. The influence of Hollywood depictions of the Day of the Dead have even had an effect in Mexico: a fake Day of the Dead parade depicted in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre has now become a real, annual parade in which thousand take part.

When asked whether Sra. Muñiz-Peredo, originally from Mexico City, had any special memories of the Day of the Dead, she explained that urbanites were less inclined to take part in the holiday’s more traditional elements, like the construction of ofrendas. Still, it’s clear that she and her class have taken to heart one of the most important lessons this holiday has to offer: that the loss of loved ones can be processed as much through celebration as through mourning. “It’s different from America,” Muñiz-Peredo said, “not better or worse, but different. That’s one of the great values of foreign language classes – you learn to see the world from a completely different perspective. That can be life changing.”  

How You Can Take Part

The altar built by University students will be featured in a Day of the Dead festival hosted at the Eiteljorg Museum on Saturday, October 27th. The event will feature live performances, music, ofrendas, as well as food. Admission is free.