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Day Of The Dead Altars Become Spaces For Dead And Living From Communities Often Ignored

A man with light brown skin holds up two pictures rendered in black and white. He wears a camouflage coat and a black hat.
CSU Dominguez Hills student Joshua Manarang holds photos of victims of Asian hate.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
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November 3, 2022 was supposed to be a day of two deep events honoring the dead at California State University Dominguez Hills.

The Latinx Cultural Resource Center planned to build a Day of the Dead altar focusing on queer and trans people killed in acts of violence. The Asian & Pacific Cultural Center planned a march and teach-in focusing on Asian victims of lethal racist violence.

How Two Events Came Together

They were to be two separate events. Then the directors of the two centers talked and decided, along with the students of both groups, to join the two events.

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A light-skinned woman holds two photos of deceased people. She's in front of a Day of the Dead altar with gray, blue, pink, and white balloons.
CSU Dominguez Hills student Elizabeth Corral holds two photos she places on a Day of the Dead altar dedicated to Queer and Trans people who've died.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

“I think there's a lot of intersectionality between our communities,” said Nathan Nguyen, program director at the Asian & Pacific Cultural Center. “A few weeks ago, we had an event [that focused on] Asian Latinos, Asians in Latin America. We exist in both communities and acknowledge that we're not doing [activism] alone, but that we're always doing this together.”

Working Across Identities

As Southern California continues to grapple with physical and spoken incidents of racial and ethnic violence, the work across racial and ethnic divides seen at this campus on this Day of the Dead spotlights an intentional effort to counter that violence.

“This collaboration continues to show students the solidarity and the need for that intersectional work,” said Rony Castellanos Raymundo, program director of the Latinx Cultural Resource Center. “[We] need to work together so that we don't have that divide-and-conquer type of mentality that sometimes runs around in circles of activism.”

The student body at Cal State Dominguez Hills is about 90% students of color.

I think that it's important to highlight particular groups, those that have been most vulnerable, most silenced historically,
— Myra Soriano, associate vice president for student success, CSU Dominguez Hills

As the sun set over the campus on Thursday, Asian Pacific Islander students carried framed photos of 20 people killed in hate incidents. Some were well-known, like Vincent Chin, who was killed in 1982, but others less so, like Ee Lee who was killed in 2020. Students chanted and carried signs that read “No more discrimen-Asian” and “Stop Asian Hate.”

The students marched to the lawn west of the campus student center where half a dozen altars were arranged along a walkway. The DJ turned down the music to let a woman with the Asian Pacific Islander group speak.

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A man places photos of Asian people killed in hate incidents on a table covered in black.
Members of the Asian Pacific Cultural Center at CSU Dominguez Hills place photos of Asians killed in hate incidents during a Day of the Dead event on campus.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

“In celebration of Día de los Muertos I want to talk about the importance of remembering our fallen brothers and sisters and celebrating them,” said Patricia Roque. In May of this year Roque, with her mother and father, endured an assault in North Hollywood when a man attacked them. Roque’s father was hospitalized and the alleged attacker has pleaded not guilty to a hate crime.

Roque was facing the largest altar at the event, the one designed by the Latinx center. It was dedicated to queer and trans people who’ve died.

One of the photos showed a glamorous woman with straight platinum hair and dark eye make-up.

“We really want to honor her,” said Elizabeth Corral, a business major. “Her family disowned her and she died [of cancer] surrounded by her friends,” but not by her blood family, she said. The woman’s name is Pasha, she said. Her cousin’s friend.

An Altar For All

But the altar isn’t limited to those who were queer and trans. Corral also placed a photo of her father, who died when she was five years old from a workplace accident.

Corral identifies as bisexual. The altar’s focus on queer and trans people is important to her, she said, because she feels she doesn’t have to endure much of the discrimination that those of previous generations faced.

This collaboration continues to show students the solidarity and the need for that intersectional work.
— Rony Castellanos Raymundo, program director, Latinx Cultural Resource Center at CSU Dominguez Hills

“We need to talk about all those stories, not just those that are visible,” said Myra Soriano, CSUDH’s interim associate vice president for student success.

The Day of the Dead altar is a tradition from Mexico and Central America that has Indigenous roots from before European Conquest in the 16th century. In the 1970s, Chicanos traveled to Mexico, saw the practices, and were inspired to re-create the altars and give them their own spin when they returned to their communities in the Southwest states.

As Day of the Dead has taken off in the United States in the last decade, more people are creating altars in this country that focus not just on individuals but on celebrities and groups of people.

“I think that it's important to highlight particular groups," Soriano said. "Those that have been most vulnerable, most silenced historically.”

What questions do you have about higher education?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.