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Dia de los Muertos Symposium

On Nov. 2nd, Books in the Barrio joined the Mexican American Studies Program at St. Philip’s College for the Día de los Muertos Symposium. It’s now been two weeks since that event and it’s difficult to put into words the significance of the experience.

We began the day with a panel discussion on the importance of culturally grounding the work that we do. Professor Kelli Rolland-Adkins and UTSA graduate student Cynthia Aguilar both spoke about the need to understand a person’s cultural positioning when doing social work and counseling. We then invited students to imagine what the world would look like, what education would look like, if culture was central to everything that we do.

One student spoke of his former high school campus that had no windows in any of the classrooms and imagined children sitting in classrooms full of windows so that as they sat there learning, they’d never forget they were part of a much larger community.

Our second panel focused on grief and exploring the ways in which different cultural groups honor death as a way to work through the trauma of losing a loved one. We spoke of death not as an end, but as a transition, a new beginning. We invoked our ancestors, we welcomed them into our space, into our lives. We invited students to create ofrendas, to help build a community altar.

Students offered stories and laughter, as they remembered those who had passed. We ended the day with a ceremonial blessing led by Kalpulli Ayolopaktzin, a transnational, inter-tribal group dedicated to preserving ancestral Anahuaka danza and culture. We honored the four directions and blessed every altar and every building on campus. It was a sight to see - Aztec dancers, in full ceremonial dress - reminding everyone that life, that knowledge, is not confined by the walls of academic institutions.

When we first discussed hosting this event, we talked about creating a space where students, faculty, and staff could honor the lives of those loved ones who had transitioned to the spiritual realm. Given that we work with so many students who are employed in the service industry and who felt the immediate and brutal impact of the pandemic, I knew that the day would be an emotionally taxing one. I knew that there had been a tremendous amount of loss and that people were suffering. What I never expected, or even imagined, was the incredible amount of beauty, joy, and healing that would take place.

Over the course of the day, we were repeatedly thanked for creating space, for holding space, for allowing the grief and the love to be so central. In the presence of our ancestors, we saw each other, we held each other, we transformed an educational space that often feels so isolating. We all found healing and comfort in the community that day. My grandmother, who didn’t know how to read, was on an altar in the middle of a college campus library. My grandfather, who was a man of all trades, was right beside her.

May we all walk hand in hand with our ancestors and may we all build more windows than walls.

Maria Moreno, PRESENTE! Rodolfo Farias, PRESENTE!

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