With a full moon climbing over the campus library and the sudden chill of an early autumn sunset, about 25 Latino students gathered in front of an altar Monday evening at the Beckman Amphitheater to pay homage to the deceased.
The altar, part of the Dia de los Muertos ceremony put together by members of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, was adorned by flowers, candles and metaphoric offerings of food for those who have died.
Photos of family members and well-known Latinos ranging from Cesar Chavez to Selena were displayed along with candles and rosaries honoring their memory.
"It's a way of not fearing death. It's something that should be celebrated," said Elvida Vazquez, a MECHA member for the past eight years and the organization's current chair for Orange County Central.
Occasionally, a photograph of a young child or baby reminded viewers that death is not selective when it comes to age.
"It's just a way of remembering and commemorating those that have died in our family," Vazquez added.
Dia de los Muertos is an important holiday in many countries with large Catholic populations. Occurring the day after All Saints Day, it is often celebrated with parades and candlelight vigils. In Mexico, celebrants often wear skeleton costumes or makeup, called calaveras.
"It's important and a lot of times it's neglected. We forget the major focus of the event and that it's meant to honor the deceased," said Corey Arellano, chair of the Ad Hoc committee which arranged the ceremony.
The campus ceremony, held as the evening gradually darkened, consisted of students standing in a semicircle and offering prayers, mostly in Spanish. Some held hands as they recited the prayers. One or two cried softly.
One MECHA member, Dalia Rodriquez, offered a prayer to her grandparents in Purepecha, a language spoken by some of her ancestors, indigenous natives in the Mexican state of Michoacan.
After the prayers, a candle was ceremonially offered to those who wanted to share remembrances of the role that past family members have played in their lives.
"All these people helped shape our lives. Our abuelitos (grandparents), our relatives that didn't have the chances we have today," said Rosa Aceves.
Others spoke about how their lives have been helped and shaped by their families, even those who may have died before they were born.
As a breeze wafted through the assembled participants, Aceves looked around and added, “That's their spirit. It really nourishes us when we're down."
"I know my family's always going to be with me," added Arellanos.