DENTON (UNT), Texas — For students, faculty and staff at the University of North Texas, Día de los Muertos — or the Day of the Dead — is celebrated in a variety of ways both on and off-campus.
“Every year, members from Sigma Delta Pi come together to set up an altar, or ofrenda, in the Language Building lobby,” said UNT senior Kevin Guima. “This tradition is important because it helps foster an understanding, appreciation and respect for the peoples, cultures and societies of the Spanish-speaking world.”
The altar honors historical and cultural figures that have left a legacy in the Hispanic community through their work, passion and advocacy. Sigma Delta Pi, the National Collegiate Hispanic Honor Society at UNT, has set up ofrendas for prominent figures such as Selena Quintanilla and Frida Kahlo in previous years.
“People go to great lengths with these large, sophisticated and beautiful altars,” said Sandra Mendiola García, associate professor of Latin American history and history department associate chair. “The altars have different, symbolic pieces. There may be cempasúchil flowers that produce a scent to guide the dead to the altar. It includes the food that the deceased liked and water. There are candles to light the path and then a lot of people add candy, sometimes candies shaped like skulls.”
Other traditions include families visiting departed loved ones at a cemetery, bringing fresh flowers or musicians to play the deceased’s favorite songs. With the colonization of Mexico by the Spaniards, these traditions came to be celebrated around Oct. 31 through Nov. 2.
“There is no one way to celebrate the Day of the Dead,” said Mendiola García. “If we look at the pre-Hispanic period before the Spaniards colonized what is now known as Mexico, there were many indigenous groups who honored their deceased ancestors in different ways. Over time, people continue to adopt and transform these holidays.”
Off-campus, UNT community members took part in Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival. The multi-cultural event celebrates Día de los Muertos, the fall and harvest season and all things Halloween.
Many enjoyed the fall event, including Sophia Davis, a member of UNT’s student subunit of the American Fisheries Society. The student organization focuses on professional development in fisheries science and enjoys community outreach and education opportunities like the festival.
The Denton festival featured a pumpkin patch, salsa cook-off, street performers, local vendor booths, coffin races, a Halloween-themed musical and a lantern-lit twilight parade. The group has competed in the festival’s coffin races for the past two years.
“This year, we named our coffin the ‘Ghost Fisher’,” said Davis, who does research at UNT on aquatic food webs as a graduate student. “The theme reflects on threatened and endangered fish species found in Texas and how abandoned or lost fishing gear negatively impacts the ecosystem.”
The popular festival attraction offers participants who have built their own coffins — complete with brakes, steering wheels and “coffin-inspired” creativity — the chance to race in Denton’s downtown square.
“We provided educational materials at our tent in pit row to highlight species of threatened or endangered fish that are at risk of becoming ‘ghost fish’,” Davis said. "We also discussed with recreational anglers how to help prevent `ghost fishing’ by following best practices for sustainable fishing.”
Beyond the aspect of racing in a “fun, team-building activity,” Davis and other UNT students in her group were able to interact with the Denton community.
“The festival is a way for all people in the community to come out and enjoy the wonderful and magical quirkiness that makes us Denton,” said David J. Anzaldúa Pierce ('97), founder and executive director of the festival.
The festival donates some of its proceeds to Serve Denton and Cumberland Youth & Family Services. Serve Denton is the largest nonprofit center in Denton County. Cumberland Youth & Family Services supports youths in foster care, young adults aging out of foster care and single-parent families in Denton.
“It makes Denton’s Day of the Dead something you can’t find anywhere else,” said Pierce.