Kennedy Center’s Day of the Dead celebration creates cultural ties

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Rita Cortez gives a presentation about the Day of the Dead. (Preston Crawley)

A celebration at the Kennedy Center helped students and other spectators create ties between the Mexican holiday Dia De Los Muertos and the Latter-day Saint faith. Students who entered the Kennedy Center lobby on Nov 1 were treated to a festive surprise. They were met with a colorful “ofrenda” display created by Rita Cortez, who works in the language flagship center at BYU.

An ofrenda is an altar type display used in Mexican culture on Dia De Los Muertes, or the Day of the Dead, to celebrate and honor ancestors who have passed away. Cortez started to create the public ofrenda in the humanities building around two years ago. 

Aaron Rose and Rita Cortez hold pictures of ancestors by the ofrenda. (Preston Crawley)

Eric Rose, a Kennedy Center employee, visited the display and offered Cortez the opportunity to present the ofrenda in the Kennedy Center, as well as some funding to help her with advertising and refreshments.

Now, the ofrenda takes up the whole lobby. Colorful flags decorate the ceiling, marigolds, the traditional flower of ofrendas, decorate the walls, and pictures of Cortez’s ancestors circle the room; including artifacts representing earth, wind, fire and water.

Earth is represented by food, so Cortez laid out a type of sweet bread in the center of the altar. The flags that decorate the ceiling represent the wind, the candles represent fire and a pitcher of water is used to give the ancestral spirits something to drink.

During one of the lectures Cortez provided, she noted that her favorite part of her ofrenda is a small tile that reads “family is forever.”

“To me, it’s about connecting the original holiday of honoring the dead with our belief as LDS people that families are forever,” Cortez said. “So as we get to know our ancestors, we develop a love for them, and that love motivates us to action.”

According to Cortez, this year’s attendance at the event has been better than ever. Elise Larson attended the discussion as a requirement for her Spanish class and said that she enjoyed the presentation and learned more about how the Day of the Dead holiday is about a celebration of death.

Art history major Ann Harding said she saw a flyer about the ofrenda when looking for Halloween activities and decided to stop by. Harding said she enjoyed learning about the significance of the brightly painted sugar skulls, and how they are used to laugh at death. 

Cortez’s lecture was followed by refreshments, the opportunity to meet with family history consultants and a performance by a mariachi band. 

A mariachi band performs at the Day of the Dead event held in the Kennedy Center. (Preston Crawley)
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