Experiences of a Mexican festival in South Bend

Little children flitting from house to house, bags of candy bulging at their sides, their faces aglow with anticipation and the smears of once glorious face paint—the infectious spirit of Halloween never fails to excite. Days leading up to the spooky night, America’s youth explode in a burst of energy and creativity as costumes and decorations are painstakingly crafted to perfection. (The less creative may be ripped off a Walmart shelf for $29.99). Amidst all this excitement in the houses of the living, little thought seems to be given to the homes of the dead.  Although it’s impossible to forget the fake gravestones and skeletons littering random yards, perhaps the ghostliest aspect of Halloween comes the day after. Any idiot walking among the disrupted post-Halloween Walmart isles realizes that the evolution of Halloween has ultimately failed in drawing attention to the importance of truly respecting, remembering, and praying for the dead.

While the excitement of costumes and parties overshadow the true meaning of Halloween, the feast of Dia de los Muertos serves as a touching reminder that all does not end at the grave. The beautiful festival from October 31st to November 2nd is a hallmark of Latino culture, a time when people celebrate their departed loved ones with decorated ‘ofrendas’ or altars. Built as reminders to pray for loved ones who may be suffering in Purgatory, each ofrenda is dedicated to a different soul and decorated with possessions that soul enjoyed in life, such as their favorite food or book. The ofrendas are typically adorned with candles and flowers, particularly marigolds, add beauty and life to the scene. Compared to the apocalyptic isles of Walmart after Halloween, where trampled costumes and freaky masks glaringly remind shoppers of the transitory nature of life, the ofrendas of Dia de los Muertos are touching reminders that the celebration is not over—that life and joy await the faithful after death.

Having no background knowledge of this beautiful feast, visiting the celebration put on by the Notre Dame Center of Arts and Culture was a surreal experience for me. Parking across the street from the NDCAC’s old brick building where the event took place, I was unsure of what to expect from a “Day of the Dead” celebration, especially given my pathetic inability to even pronounce Dia de los Muertos.  

The strains of a guitar greeted my ears, the sweet voice of a soloist singing in Spanish floated out of the swinging doors. There were already a number of people shuffling towards the building: little children skipping along expectantly, holding their parent’s hands tight, Notre Dame students chattering to one another, elderly couples smiling expectantly as they climbed the few steps into the building.  

Joining the gathering multitude, I made my way into the building and paused a moment at the entrance to take the scene in. Three performers set up to my left provided the beautiful music that had piqued my attention outside. The room was full of life as South Bend community members and Notre Dame students laughed and talked, clearly enjoying the music and enthusiasm which surrounded them. Although impressed by the general atmosphere, it wasn’t until I made my way into the room housing the ofrendas that I fully realized the nature and beauty of the event.

Lining the walls of the room were the 13 ofrendas which South Bend community members had so beautifully made. Each ofrenda was almost overwhelming to behold, so elaborately decorated with flowers, pictures and mementos of friends, loved ones and famous people. One ofrenda dedicated to American novelist Ursula K. Le Guin displayed things she was passionate about in life: an old typewriter, a small keyboard, some of her books and poetry.  Another ofrenda dedicated to Father Augustus Tolton was decorated more simply with a few flowers and candles, accompanied by a small painting and portrait of his life.

Towards the back of the room, one ofrenda riddled with random objects—books, bottles, plastic straws, newspaper clippings—grabbed my attention. This ofrenda had three layers which represented hell, earth and heaven, the creator and community member Melina Dailey explained.  The ofrenda was a tribute to Dailey’s previous earth science teacher Mr. William Spier, who passed away last year. Although the ofrenda is a sad reminder of her teacher’s death, Dailey explained that the feast of Dia de los Muertos focuses instead on the celebration of life. During this time, “the veil is thin between worlds,” Dailey stated, further explaining the cultural belief that the ofrendas were a way of celebrating and connecting with loved ones on the other side. “It’s like partying with loved ones,” Dailey finished with a laugh.

Moved by the hard work each person had put into their respective ofrenda, and the interest both Notre Dame students and South Bend community members alike found in this celebration of the feast, I made my way back to the main room.  The room swelled with people enjoying the music, some taking a break outside to visit the food truck NDCAC provided. Others ventured across the street to the IUSB Civil Rights Heritage Center for additional activities of the event: face painting and ballet performances put on by children from St. Adalbert’s church and students from the Notre Dame ballet company.  Hot cocoa and pan dulce, traditional food served at these events, were additionally provided.

The carefully planned and well-executed event was a beautiful way to bring Notre Dame students and the South Bend community together for a culturally rich celebration. Halloween will always be a fun and exciting holiday, yet Dia de los Muertos offers so much more by calling people to look beyond themselves in honoring and praying for the dead.  

Theresa is a sophomore studying political science with a minor in journalism ethics and democracy. Contact her at tolohan2@nd.edu.