In the heart of the Quarry Amphitheater lay tables adorned with colorful papel picado, cartoonish sugar skulls, bright orange marigolds, touching images of loved ones, and candles that melted throughout the night. Plates of favorite foods, toys, and sweets of deceased friends and family were set on the altar as ofrendas.

With its first in-person event since the pandemic, El Centro, UC Santa Cruz’s Chicanx/Latinx Resource Center, celebrated Día de Los Muertos on Nov. 2nd. With music, dancing, and community, El Centro brought the Latinx community closer, educated others on Latinx traditions, and provided a space to grieve and honor the lives of deceased loved ones. 

“Being there and watching this beautiful celebration of Mexican culture on campus was special for me,” said second-year Quarry tech-crew member Rudy Estrada. “As a Latino, I felt so immersed in my own culture, and was a part of the celebración.”

Guests were greeted at 7 p.m. with Mexican hot chocolate and pan dulce, alongside marigolds, which are said to be the paths that spirits use to get to their ofrendas. The festivities opened with a dance presentation from the Whitehawk Aztec Dancers.

Their performance focused on storytelling and showcased Aztec dances that transported the audience to pre-Hispanic periods while telling the history of Día de Los Muertos. With bells on their feet and feathers in their hair, the dancers captivated the audience.

In the audience sat second-year Esmeralda Ruiz, who was excited to see her culture represented in a new light on campus.

“It’s nice to know there are other people like me on campus,” Ruiz said. “It was discouraging at first when I got here, but now being here and seeing other Latinos, it’s amazing to find people I can finally connect with.”

With colorful, vibrant outfits and elaborate makeup, student-run dance organization Los Mejicas performed a series of traditional dances alongside the student music group Mariachi. While Mariachi played music, the dancers harmonized with their zapateados and skirts. 

Los Mejicas wore calavera makeup, also known as sugar skull makeup, which is a time-honored symbol that represents and celebrates those who have passed away. Los Mejicas rehearsed for two weeks for this event and felt even more united than before. 

Third-year and co-director of Los Mejicas, Daisy Brambila, connected with audiences and found the environment to be mesmerizing while performing at the Día de Los Muertos event. 

Día de Los Muertos is a holiday that remembers dead loved ones with gatherings and vibrant festivities, a uniquely Latin American custom originating in Mexico, that mixes Indigenous Aztec ceremony with Catholicism brought to the region by Spanish conquistadors.

Whitehawk, a non-profit organization based in Watsonville, has been in operation since 1983. Its goal is to give youth the opportunity to learn and experience the culture of their indigenous ancestors through dance.

“We really just wanted to give our audience the experience of being Latinx and making it cool,” Brambila said. “Seeing our dance really gives a lot of people that feeling of being back home with their family even though at this time that might be difficult.”

The Quarry was filled with a flurry of festive trumpet flourishes and guitarrón bass. Nine musicians dressed in gold-embroidered suits picked, strummed, and trumpeted tunes as audience members tapped their feet and watched attentively.

A group of dancers perform on stage in front of a large ofrenda
Behind a candle-lit ofrenda, dancers perform on stage during the event under colorful lights. Photo by Lucy Wald

The student-run mariachi group, Mariachi, had a selection of music including old boleros, singing in Spanish, and incorporating their own spin on classics. Master of ceremonies and El Centro Student Programs Coordinator (SPC) Danny Osorio also performed with Mariachi, playing the vi-huela.

“When I saw all those people here wanting to be a part of this night, it was pretty validating,” Osorio said. “It was surreal too because I’ve been working on this since this August with other SPCs.”

At the end of the night, all around the Quarry amphitheater, audience members sat in silence and reflected on their deceased loved ones while participating in the calling of the names. 

“It did resonate with people, especially with myself, when people started calling out the names. It felt very somber,” Osorio said. “But that’s what Día de Los Muertos is about, and it was also comforting having everybody being there and having somebody reminisce about.” 

A large paper skull sits on a table with candles, pictures, and flowers of passed away loved ones.
Marigolds, family photos, and candles adorn the ofrenda sitting in front of the stage at the Quarry Ampitheater. Photo by Lucy Wald

To learn more about other El Centro events and its resources, click here.

This article was published on Nov. 24 as a backlog, it was originally written during the week of Nov. 1.