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Growing up in North Carolina away from my extended family in Mexico, my parents wanted to make sure I stayed connected with as many traditions as possible. Of all the rituals my mom instilled in me, my favorite was always building a Día de Muertos altar. As I have grown and moved away from home, I have learned different more about the history of Día de Muertos, but my mom’s lessons have always stayed with me.

The first lesson was around the why we celebrate the holiday. She told me there’s a belief that someone has three deaths. Their first is their physical death. This is what happens when someone is no longer “here with us”. Then it is up to us to make sure their second death, their spiritual one, is a smooth transition. We pray for them and wish them a peaceful exit from this world. Finally, their memory is the death we work to delay for as long as possible. This understanding helped me make sense of the loaded topic of death. I knew we would have to say goodbye to people, but we could keep them around by remembering them and sharing their stories with those around us. Not only was it an opportunity to keep them with me, but it was seen as a celebration. The altars are colorful, the food we ate was our deceased family member’s favorites, and the overall energy was a festive one. Yes, the death of a loved one is sad, and this holiday was to remember their lives and keep them alive.

When I went to college, I started to seek opportunities to celebrate Día de Muertos with community. I would go to community centers and churches that had their own altars set up and I was always impressed with the range of altars from simple (a candle, a flower, and a picture) to the elaborate (multi-tiered and took over an entire room). I decided to start making my own and invite my friends to participate by telling me about their family members. That was almost 10 years ago, and I have kept the tradition alive each year since. Even last year, we found a way to build a virtual one.

This year was my first year celebrating in person at the Carolina Latinx Center and I was touched by how many students, faculty, staff, and community members participated in our altar. I learned about people’s grandparents, godparents, and friends. We passed around pan de muerto and discussed some of the misnomers of this holiday. While super informative, my favorite part of the program was the people who said they were looking for somewhere to celebrate this holiday and heard about our invite. It was a full circle from when I was looking for community during my first years of college. Thank you again to everyone who made this program a success!