Paulina Delgadillo puts up a photo in the Dia de los Muertos ofrenda located in Parmer Hall on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Inside Lewis Hall, there’s a tiered ofrenda (altar), draped in blue and black cloths, each row lined with sugar skulls, prayer candles and bits of tissue paper mimicking marigolds. Faux fruits such as pears, apples and lemons, serve as “offerings” to loved ones who have died, fill the empty spaces between. Papel picados (colorful cutout pennants) hang from the ceiling, while a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe leans against the makeshift structure, surrounded by more prayer candles, arranged in the shape of a heart. 

The ofrenda, one of four displayed around Dominican University’s campus, is a central part of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a two-day holiday originally celebrated in Mexico and parts of Latin America, honoring the departed. The holiday, which typically takes place Nov. 1 and 2, has made its mark on the River Forest in recent years.

University minister Amirah Orozco said when people look at the campus ofrendas, what they see is the work of many hands. Orozco, whose service group Ministry en lo Cotidiano (MLC) helped orchestrate the festivities on Nov. 1 and 2, said she saw students, those familiar with as well as those new to the holiday, pitch in on decorating the makeshift altars. 

“Students [who] are literally just walking by are sort of being pulled into it,” said Orozco, some students demonstrating a carefree mentality, which allowed her and other MLC leaders to narrow down this year’s theme. 

“We’re doing it as we go along,” she explained. “In brainstorming sessions, we thought, and we wanted to, and we tried to guide the conversation toward what is actually going to be on the altar. … And a lot of people came to it with more ideas about what grief meant to them, what losses meant to them, what esperanzas — what hopes meant to them.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the high-profile cases of racial injustices and police brutality toward people of color cast a shadow over the last year and a half, which is reflected nside Lewis Hall, at the Center for Cultural Liberation, where another ofrenda features pictures of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, and Adam Toledo, a teen who was fatally shot by a Chicago police officer, are displayed alongside other victims of gun violence, hate crimes and racial injustice. Photos of the late civil rights icon John Lewis and the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg are fixed below them. 

“We lost a lot of people,” said Paulina Delgadillo, a junior at DU who worked with MLC to host Día de los Muertos. “We lost friends. We lost family members, but also I think we lost a lot of things. We lost ourselves. We lost some peace. We lost hope in a sense.” 

But out of that darkness comes light, Delgadillo added. While Día de los Muertos focuses on remembering those who have died, she believes it’s also a time for positive self-reflection. The global pandemic changed people, and during the days leading up to Día de los Muertos, Delgadillo asked, “How can we bring our whole selves to the altar?”

For university senior Linda Nevarez, Día de los Muertos is about embracing cultural traditions and making new memories. 

Nevarez, who also belongs to MLC and participated in past Día de los Muertos festivities at DU, said she didn’t celebrate the holiday with her family at home but recalled going to other places and seeing the ofrendas.  

“When I became part of the ministry,” Nevarez said, “I learned what it entails. I learned everything that I know now, and I think that instead of me bringing it to school, I think school brought it to me [and] I brought it to my home.”  

Nevarez and Delgadillo opened up about how excited they were to see people gather this year. On Nov. 1, the university celebrated a Mass for Día de todos los santos (All Saints Day), while Nov. 2 (All Souls Day) centered on the blessing of the ofrenda. A local mariachi band was set to perform and lead a procession to the four altars. Nevarez and Delgadillo said they planned on placing photos of their own loved ones on the altars.   

“I know it’s a place of mourning and sadness, but we’re celebrating that and acknowledging that,” Nevarez said. “Throughout COVID, we didn’t acknowledge our [grievances], and we didn’t acknowledge our loss. … It’s our time to actually mourn and celebrate that mourning, celebrating the lives that were lost and acknowledging those lives that were lost.”  

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