La Casa leads OVPDEMA programs in celebrating Day of the Dead

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Growing up in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos (“The Day of the Dead”) was a neighborhood affair for Lillian Casillas-Origel. So in 2014, as the neighborhood in which the La Casa Latino Cultural Center is located added a new neighbor, the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center, and another neighbor, the GLBT Student Support Services Office, was welcomed into the Office of the Vice President for Equity, Diversity, and Multicultural Affairs (OVPDEMA) family, Casillas-Origel, La Casa’s director, decided to incorporate the neighborhood into the celebration.

“The Day of the Dead celebration started at IU because we wanted folks to understand the culture, that it was not something scary like Halloween, but that it was centered around remembering those who have passed, our loved ones, whether they’re family members or friends,” explained Casillas-Origel, who said the celebration has occurred at IU for multiple decades. “In Mexico, we celebrated it as a communal celebration—not only the family, but with the whole neighborhood and then at the cemetery.”

Casillas-Origel reached out to Doug Bauder, the director of the GLBT Student Support Services Office, about setting up an altar and incorporating his center into the celebration. Additionally, the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center had recently moved into its new location, making the event a way to make the IU community more familiar with the move, as well as connect all three nearby OVPDEMA programs. La Casa’s next-door neighbors, Canterbury House, IU’s Episcopal Campus Ministries, were also invited to participate.

Even before the GLBT Office fell under the umbrella of OVPDEMA, Doug and I had a relationship and did programs together. But because of the intersectionality of people in both the Latino community and the LGBTQ+ community, the OVPDEMA connection has further solidified the relationship between our programs.

Lillian Casillas-Origel, La Casa Director

The La Casa Latino Cultural Center, the GLBT Student Support Services Office, and the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center are all OVPDEMA programs, and while all IU students are welcome to participate in their events, obviously each center targets different audiences. The collaborative Day of the Dead celebration, led by La Casa, encourages inclusion.

“We wanted to include as many people as possible, but we really wanted to show that we had something in common. There’s a link. We might be different cultural centers and our focuses might be slightly different, but at the root of who we are, we’re the same. We’re all here to support and learn from each other. We’re a community,” said Casillas-Origel.

“I think the fact that you have four different entities participating makes it unique. One of the things that we tell the students is that we all celebrate and honor people in our own different ways in different cultures. All of us have something and it doesn’t have to be this major tradition, but some of it is very personal and unique to you or to your family. This celebration is just a way of displaying our tradition.”

At this year’s Dia de los Muertos, held on Wednesday, November 2, participants can look forward to learning more about the history and background of the event from Dr. Mintzi Martinez-Rivera, Ph.D., a visiting assistant professor of Latino Studies at IU, then partaking in food and drinks—including tamales, rice and beans, horchata, jamaica, and Day of the Dead bread—and view altars that honor loved ones and creating individual crafts.

“Each center has developed its own altar to honor family, friends, and loved ones from their communities, and each one will have its own craft. We try to make sure there are crafts that are authentic. The people who volunteer will go from one center to another to finish their crafts, so by the time they go to all four centers, they will have developed their own piece that will go on their altar at home,” said Casillas-Origel. “People will walk away not only having an understanding of the celebration and having eaten some food, but they can also go home and develop their own altars with cultural artifacts.”

They’ll also leave with hopefully a bit more understanding about what links the entire IU community.

“This year, the GLBT Office is honoring the people who died in the Orlando shootings. There’s an educational component that also happens, so when somebody honors the Orlando victims, they can begin to understand the impact on the Latino community,” explained Casillas-Origel, referring to the fact that many of the victims in the tragedy were of Puerto Rican descent. “Even before the GLBT Office fell under the umbrella of OVPDEMA, Doug and I had a relationship and did programs together. But because of the intersectionality of people in both the Latino community and the LGBTQ+ community, the OVPDEMA connection has further solidified the relationship between our programs.”

La Casa will honor the mother of a student, IU sophomore Angelica Navarro, at this year’s celebration. Navarro, who also works part-time at La Casa, lost her mother July 25, before the start of the fall semester.

“By honoring my mother, it made me feel like La Casa really cared about me. They’ve all been really supportive and understanding of everything I’ve faced this semester. When they asked me, they wondered if I felt it would be insensitive. But I was actually really glad that they thought about me and what I was going through,” said Navarro, a social work major who hails from Merrillville, Ind.

“La Casa is my favorite place on this campus. I love everything that they do and everything that they stand for. They’re very welcoming to all students. You don’t have to be Latino to come; you don’t have to speak Spanish—that’s a common misconception. La Casa is open to everyone: all races, all ethnicities, all genders, all sexualities. The events that they put on show how much they care about Latinos and students in general. They do a lot of things that support us and makes it feel like a home away from home. Being a minority at a big school like IU, sometimes you question where you fit in. But I fit in perfectly at La Casa.”