Kennedy Center’s Día de los Muertos Event Brings Latin-American Tradition to BYU

In a three-day event celebrating Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, the Kennedy Center gave BYU students and faculty an up-close opportunity to discover and celebrate a longstanding Latin American tradition. The Kennedy Center lobby was transformed with colorful decorations and cultural treats from Wednesday, October 30 to Friday, November 1, highlighted by docent-led discussions three times daily and a live mariachi performance Friday.

“I just think it’s a beautiful holiday,” said Rita Cortez, a managing director of one of BYU’s language flagship centers and organizer of the event. “Not only beautiful to look at, but beautiful in meaning. If you think about it, you’re honoring your ancestors. You’re honoring those who came before us.”

The fall holiday, which occurs on November 1 and 2 annually, often draws comparisons to Halloween, partially due to its emphasis on the deceased. But Cortez and other faculty members highlighted in their discussions that the focus on death is not gloomy, but joyful. Unlike its late-October counterpart, Dia de los Muertos emphasizes honoring ancestors, building familial ties, and celebrating the lives of the deceased. Typical Día de los Muertos celebrations center on an ofrenda, or an altar, upon which the deceased ancestors’ favorite foods, beverages and candles are placed, in addition to holy imagery, flowers and other to invite deceased loved ones to return in spirit. In keeping with a cultural tradition, students were invited to place images of their own deceased ancestors on the Kennedy Center altar.

“The main focus of any Day of the Dead celebration is the ofrenda, or the altar,” explained Cortez. “The ofrenda means offering. I like that word better, because you’re offering something to your ancestors. You’re offering them a chance to come and visit and be with you for the day.”

Popularity for the ancient Aztec tradition has grown exponentially in the United States since the 2017 film Coco was released. The Disney blockbuster followed a young Mexican boy during his community’s Day of the Dead traditions, and it served as an introduction and a catalyst for interest in the holiday. Coco portrayed the holiday “about 90% correctly,” according to one BYU student from southern Mexico who led a tour during the three-day event. For faculty and students alike, the celebration served as a dual opportunity to honor ancestors and introduce others to the unique, special holiday.

“I’m so thrilled to have my ancestors here,” said Aaron Rose, an international study program director, during a presentation on Friday. “I feel like I’m introducing you to my family. And I know that they’re very pleased that they’re respected in this way, and that’s the point of today.”

Sam Benson (English, ’22)

Photos provided by Preston Crawley from the Daily Universe