Día de Muertos comes to Pima



It was a celebration of life and death at the Pima Community College West Campus Nov. 1 with the Pima Native American Student Association’s first celebration of the Day of the Dead.

            Joe Giddens/ AZTEC PRESS
Alexa Zozaya dances with Grupo Folklórico Miztontli Nov. 1 at the West Campus.

It was a fundraising event with an array of activities including face painting, music, photo booths and “altares de ofrendas” also known as offering altars. 

The Student Social Services Organization and ARC Pantry also attended the event to solicit donations for their food pantry donation box, but the main attraction was the University of Arizona folklorico dance group Grupo Folklórico Miztontli. 

“I wanted to start Native American Heritage Month,” said NASA president Alexandra McKenna. “By sharing with the community, the indigenous roots of the holiday many people know today as Día de Muertos.”

McKenna’s goal for the event was to serve as a reminder that Dia de los Muertos that’s presently celebrated is a mixture of indigenous people’s traditions with Catholic influences. Such as the Otomi people of central Mexico who believe that life doesn’t end at death but marks the start of a better life. 

The group has been extremely active over the last year from putting on a pow-wow in March which raised $1,500 to community engagement.

“We focus on being a space for native students on campus,”  McKenna said. “Because currently at Pima there is no native student center. … So we meet on Fridays and we discuss issues in our community and how we can solve those issues and we also do a lot of fundraising events.”

The celebration of life and its indigenous roots put a lot of effort in reminding everyone of the indigenous tradition in which Dia de los Muertos is so deeply rooted.

“People just assume that it’s like a revelation holiday,” McKenna said. “When it fact it’s an indigenous tradition that go back in time, especially with southern indigenous people. Obviously today a lot of it is influenced by catholicism and Spaniards, but a lot of it still holds true. Many indigenous groups in Mexico and Latin America and the U.S still do their own spirituality without the influence of Catholicization or without the influence of Spanish colonization. It’s still there,; still  exists they never went away.” 

One of the central portions of Día de Muertos is constructing altars in memory of the departed. “Altares de ofrendas” have ties to native peoples such as the Totonac, Nahuas and Zapotecs. Altars and traditions associated with them vary across groups for one example with Totonac communities of Southeast Mexico:

The altar is understood as a small world that contains the earth,” McKenna said. “Its aromatic vegetation that flowers give, the water that is placed below and on the altar to symbolize the earth itself. On the top is the sky made with tepejilote leaves, and the stars and the sun made with coyol palm leaves. The altar contains four spaces which symbolize four universes in which the deceased have gone to.” 

 Several altars at the celebration were setup in memory of deceased loved ones of the community at the event with two in memory of deceased Pima employees. 

Shawn Graham was the head of outreach and recruitment at the college. He passed away on July 30 at the age of 41 because of complications from diabetes. 

Despite being taken so soon, his impact on the community goes well beyond the walls of Pima.  

“He is personally responsible for thousands of students who might not have access to higher education,” said Governing Board Member Mark Hanna at the September board meeting. “Having the opportunity to start their college career at Pima Community College.”

The sentiment among his colleagues at Pima College is fond memories of his dedication to serving students and his encouragement in their studies.  

“Shawn Graham was very unselfish,” social sciences instructor Margarita Youngo said. “He was a hard worker, he always smiled and he was a role model for students with his colleagues. He was a pleasure to work with, but his greatest impact was with the students.”

               Joe Giddens/ AZTEC PRESS
A memorial altar setup in memory of deceased Pima employee Shawn Graham.

Reyna Conde, the 2019-2020 Ms. Indian Pima Community College, expressed her

                           Angel Canez/ AZTEC PRESS
Doug Shakel, former Pima Community College faculty member, is honored during PCC’s celebration of life at West Campus on Nov. 1.

memories of Shawn. She met him when she was in high school getting ready to transfer to Pima to study elementary education. 

He encouraged me every day up until his very last breath,” Conde said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” 

Ryland Plassmann set up his alter in memory of Pima geology faculty member Doug Shakel, who passed away in November 2012 from liver cancer. Shakel taught at Pima for 27 years and is remembered for being a major player in getting the land of Catalina State Park preserved for future generations. 

But Plassmann best remembers Shakel for looking for geodes with him in the Sonoran Desert. Shakel also loved Mexican and indingeous cultures, which Plassmann incorporated into his altar. 

Another death affecting the Pima community was the loss of Tess LaPorte. LaPorte passed on Oct. 30 in St. Johns, Arizona. She was a fiscal analyst at Maintenance and Security.   

“Tess brought her amazing spirit and energy to every position,” Vice Chancellor Bill Ward said in a recent email. “And was well liked and highly respected by everyone who knew her. Her loss will be deeply felt by her Pima family.”

The main event was a dance performance by the University of Arizona’s “Grupo Folklorico Miztontli” who performed traditional folklórico dance from several regions of Mexico.

                                                                                                                           Joe Giddens/ AZTEC PRESS
Grupo Folklórico Miztontli closes out the Día de Muertos celebration at the West Campus with traditional dances from a variety of Mexican states.

“Grupo Folklórico Miztontli,” performer Alexa Zozaya said, “was born in 2007 and was the only folklórico in higher education, college or university around Arizona for a long time.”

To Zozaya, folklórico serves as an important living cultural connection to her forebearers and a way to honor them to contemporary audiences.

One of the ways to express all of our culture and tradition and history is through dance,” she said. “Our ancestors have used dance, music and storytelling to pass on to new generations, our traditions, our culture, our ethics, and our legends.”

The group performs an annual showcase of their that has been put on mostly in venues around the University of Arizona. 

However, Zozaya also has expressed a desire to see it put on their 13th annual performance at the Proscenium Theatre at West Campus in the coming year. 

The event was about we the living looking forward.

“Today 21% of Mexico’s population is indigenous,” McKenna said. “Or around 25,694,928 people. These are only a handful of indigenous traditions celebrated today for Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico. Our Pre- colonization spirituality and beliefs are being preserved and shared for the next generation.”

                                                                                                                                                                                       Angel Canez/ AZTEC PRESS
Reyna Conde, Nathan Ramon and Alexandria McKenna hang out on West Campus, ready to answer questions.