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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

La celebración de la muerte y vida: the celebration of life and death

The Dia de los Muertos celebration included performances from students and community members.
The Dia de los Muertos celebration included performances from students and community members.

In the spirit of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a lively group of students, faculty and community members united across campus on Thursday, Nov. 2 for the second year in a row to celebrate and honor loved ones who have passed.

The group began its procession at the Anderson Freeman Resource Center, meeting churchgoers as they exited from a special Spanish mass at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on College Street. Assistant Professor of Theatre Olga Sanchez Saltveit, the original organizer of Middlebury’s Día De Los Muertos celebration, enjoyed the church service.

“It was really beautiful,” Sanchez Saltveit said. “Every month the Catholic Migrant Ministry of Addison County offers a mass in Spanish. For Día de los Muertos last year, they moved their mass that would have been at St. Peter’s in Vergennes, they moved it here, and this year they did it again. They’re providing transportation for community members to come to the Misa en Español.”

The group then made its way to McCullough lawn, where individuals paid their respects at eight ofrendas, traditional Día de los Muertos altars, admiring the photos, candles, flowers, foods and drinks dedicated to lost loved ones. Finally, they climbed Chapel hill to watch various arts performances. 

Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music Jeff Buettner led community members in a ‘makeshift mariachi band’ at the chapel; the Theatre department performed the folklore “La Llorona”; two roller skaters in calavera, or skull makeup, danced to a song by Weyes Blood; a group in traditional dress danced folklórico; and the “Culture as Creative Process” arts class performed on the tennis courts. Sanchez Saltveit then gave an address at an additional ofrenda in front of St. Mary’s graveyard. People eventually headed to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for food as the colorful night came to a close.

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, various groups including the Pan-African, Latinx, Asian and Native-American (PALANA) social house, Alianza, Juntos and Creating Art Together contributed to a series of preparation workshops. Event organizer Ryan Ulen ’26 described a workshop devoted to the painting of alebrije, fantastical creatures that are supposed to guide the dead back to the veil of the living.

Other workshops reflected the creativity of the Middlebury community. The crafty workshops included picture frame painting in addition to mask and papel picado making. The colorful papel picado, or pecked paper, sheets could be seen hanging around campus in the days leading up to the celebration. Champlain Valley-based Hearthunder Art Collective also hosted a workshop for building a large paper mâché calavera sculpture, affectionately known as Callie. 

Among the eight ofrendas was one spread with a Palestinian flag backgrounded by several pages of names. PALANA Board Event Coordinator Crystal Zhou ’23.5 described the intention of the altar.

“It would be a grave disservice to talk about the Day of the Dead without addressing the thousands of Palestinian civilians, largely made up of children, who have passed away as a direct result of Israeli occupation. We’ve decided to include the list of victims posted by the Palestinian Ministry of Health to call awareness to the genocide going on in Palestine,” Zhou said. 

At her final address by the cemetery, Sanchez Saltviet invited audience members to call out the names of someone in their life who has passed and for others to respond with “Que vive!” Sniffles could be heard as the crowd affirmed dozens of names with the phrase, which translates to “how alive!”

Charlie Grossman ’26.5, a student performer on stilts, spoke on the personal significance of the holiday as someone who did not grow up celebrating Día de los Muertos. “Death is one of those things where the world doesn't give you any good answers, and religion and spirituality are one good way to make sense of all that stuff,” Grossman said.   

Enedina Pineda ’27 has been celebrating the holiday with her family for as long as she can remember and reflected on the holiday’s significance to her.

“We see death, and Día de los Muertos as a day to celebrate the death, and to kind of not be sad, but a day and moment to reflect on the memories you had with them,” Pineda said. 

The festivities served as a reminder of the joy that the people the attendees lost gave them. “They dance and they cry, it’s building happiness,” Enedina said.

Multiple people commented on the difference between celebrating here at Middlebury and at home with their families. Several attendees expressed how at Middlebury, they felt at times like they were in a position as educators, whereas, at home, they simply took part in the family-centered festivities, with more of an unspoken understanding of what the holiday means to them. 

“It’s definitely a different vibe, for the most part, you’re teaching other people about the festival so you’re just sharing your culture, versus back home you’re just celebrating with everyone else,” Sanchez Saltveit said.

Although Día de los Muertos celebrations at Middlebury may never be the same as celebrating at home with one's family, attendees such as Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies Louis Castañeda reflected fondly on the evolution of Middlebury’s Día de los Muertos traditions.

“This has grown a lot since I got here to Middlebury ten years ago. There were little things like a small altar or an ofrenda around campus, but now people are getting together to do this on a larger scale and it's more visible. I love it — I just want to invite everyone to come,” Castañeda said.

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Michele McCrew, a Middlebury community member and musician, did not know much about Día de los Muertos prior to the event. When contacted about playing trumpet in the mariachi band for the event, she conducted some research online and learned more when she actually participated in the festivities. Many people at the event were happy to share their culture as long as others were coming from a place of appreciation. 

“It’s heartwarming because as long as they're educated it’s good. I have more of a respect for them because they are respecting something that I value,” Enedina said.

Folklórico dancer Alexandra Valdivia ’27 shared a similar appreciation for the educational element of the celebration. 

“I'm very thankful for the opportunity and I am very happy we get to present it to the whole student body and not just the student body but the town itself, it's an open invite,” Valdivia said.

Sanchez Saltveit also shared her perspective on the emotional and personal impacts of the holiday. 

"It's just that it’s a source of comfort, a source of strength, a source of community building. I'm not of Mexican heritage, but doing Día de los Muertos year after year and doing Latine identified things whether they are specifically Mexican or just Latinidad, and we're all in a room just being latine, deepens my identity as a Latine person," Sanchez Saltveit said.

June Su

June Su '27 (he/him)

June seeks to double major in political science and studio art. In his free time, he enjoys painting, eating sunny side up eggs, and watching horror movies.