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Letters to Loyola: El Día de Muertos

October 28, 2021

Dear Loyola,

Throughout history, human beings have created traditions to help them grapple with death, including annual events in the fall – the end of the harvest season and a time of preparation for impending winter. One of the most beautiful of those traditions originated in what is now Mexico, El Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

Though modern life tends to treat death with a mix of denial and discomfort, El Día de Muertos embraces the memories of loved ones lost, in traditions both indigenous and Catholic. Celebrants build altars to honor their relatives and friends, filling them with photographs, favorite foods and drinks. (When my time comes, please leave me a Sazerac.) The dead are invited to visit the living with a river of bright orange, the Aztec marigold flowers known as cempazúchitl. In beautiful timing, the migration of the Monarch butterflies represents the souls of the departed, unfettered by any earthly borders. The living keep alive the memory of the dead with costumes, face paint and all-night celebrations.

As a child growing up here in New Orleans, we spent All Saints Day cleaning our own small family crypt – the place I know I will end up one day. We played in cemeteries that felt like lively places, small cities of the dead. Our own traditions share that mix of grief and celebration – the jazz funerals that move from the somber playing of “Closer Walk With Thee” to the joyful. We have joy that our loved one has gone to be with God, joy that we hope to see them again and joy in the lives they lived.

But none of my experience compares with the intense beauty of El Día de Muertos. At Loyola, we will celebrate these traditions together this week in the Danna Center, the Peace Quad and a special blessing of the altar on Tuesday at noon. On Tuesday, you also can join us for All Soul’s Day Mass in Ignatius Chapel at noon. You can also submit names of those you’ve lost to so that we can pray for them specifically.

Dr. Andrea Gaytan Cuesta, a visiting professor in our Department of Language and Culture who has worked with many of you to organize these events, sent me this video of the celebration in her home of Morelia, Michoacán. If you need five minutes of peace and inspiration, please watch it. (And I’m hoping she’ll take me there to visit one day because it just might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.)

Prayers and blessings,

Tania Tetlow