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Holyoke Community College honors lost loved ones on Día de los Muertos

The tradition of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is celebrated on Nov. 2 in Mexico, and this year in western Massachusetts, an altar with photos, food and candles was set up at Holyoke Community College, to connect with loved ones who've passed away.

Several decorated tables were placed right outside the office of HCC's El Centro, a program established to meet the needs of the school's many Spanish speaking students.

The photos were surrounded by marigolds and ofrendas or offerings.

At many alters set up in cemeteries and homes, water, candy, even cigarettes — things loved ones enjoyed — are placed side by side, to guide the dead back to the world of the living, said Spanish language professor Raul Gutiérrez.

"We have a table with fruit, sugar skulls, and some alebrijes, which [are] spirit animals," said Gutiérrez, who is from Mexico and one of the organizers of the event.

Nearby a student was cutting up and sharing a special type of bread baked for this day — a Pan de Muertos. It's not typically sweet, Gutiérrez said, and recommends having it with coffee.

Gutiérrez is coordinator of Holyoke Community College's Latinx Studies program. Almost 30% of the student population is Latino. Many are Puerto Rican, some are from Central America where Gutiérrez said there are similar holidays to Día de los Muertos. A small number are from Mexico.

The college is a Hispanic Serving Institution which is a federal designation for schools with large percentages of Latino students.

The goal of observing this pre-Columbian festival on campus, Gutiérrez said, is to teach students about different cultures.

"I always explain, in Mexican culture we fear death but it's more [accepted than in the U.S.] —death is a part of life," Gutiérrez said, adding that he made sure to explain to students that Día de Los Muertos is not the same as Halloween.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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