Celebrating Life at Alianza’s Día de los Muertos
The rain made it hard to get there, but the smiles inside made it easier. Montag Den was a bright candle on a stormy night Friday, Nov. 4, calling anyone and everyone to celebrate Día de los Muertos with the Alianza club. The only cost was a bit of dampness on the journey over. A huge crowd of people braved the storm, huddling into the room and looking for somewhere to sit. Strangers sat with strangers and became anything but strangers before the mariachi could even tune their guitars. Especially for the homesick, it felt as though family was inside.
“I go crazy over unity, so being able to like, collab with Willamette and then Salem is super cool,” Co-President of Alianza Maria Aguilar Alvarado (‘24) said. “Partly because I miss my family, too.”
The Día de los Muertos event—hosted every year by Alianza—embodies what the club is all about. Alianza is a place for community, specifically for the Latinx community at Willamette but open to anyone interested in the Latinx culture. Unity is the important thing, and this event united Willamette students, local families and businesses. There was a warm, welcoming feeling that was hard to resist.
The aromas of cinnamon, salsa and carne asada weren't bad for advertising, either. While the food was cooking under a tent outside, there were platters of chips and salsa, pan de muerto, every color of concha and constantly-replenishing churros to hold people over. They also had time to decorate skulls, paint clay pots and decide where to put the skull stickers that were at every seat. Papel picado hung over the tables. From an ofrenda at the front of the room, the framed faces of those who have passed away watched their loved ones and smiled.
Everything was the result of tireless work. Aguilar Alvarado talked about devoting more than five hours per day in the week leading up to the event. Other Alianza members put in similar amounts of work. The stress was already bad, but it didn’t help that they had originally reserved Cat Cavern, only to find out days before the event that their reservation was canceled. Alianza’s Publicist Joselyn Molina (‘25) said “It has been a lot of work, but the event is gonna be very rewarding.”
As soon as they took the stage, the Woodburn High School Mariachi made good on Molina’s promise. Alternating between two lead singers with a band of guitars, guitarrones, flutes, and trumpets, the band started with a cover of “La Bamba.” Each time the guitars picked up speed before the chorus, people opened their mouths to sing.
By the time the food was done, they were more than ready to open their mouths for tacos—there was a whiff of tortillas frying every time someone opened the doors. The soy-rizo was a new addition this year, a vegetarian option to bring even more people into the community. Alianza feels like one big family, and they’re always trying to welcome others.
Molina thinks that this is why Alianza has a deeper connection with the city of Salem than many Willamette clubs. Leaving for college meant leaving her entire family in California. She said “The fact that I can’t go home every weekend sucks,” but that now she’s considering staying in Salem after graduation. Alianza welcomed her into a community, and now she knows the parents of everyone on the executive team. Taking her in like a daughter of their own, the exec team’s parents often ask if she can stay in Salem just a little bit longer. It’s this kind of acceptance and welcome that Molina says she tries to embody with the rest of the club, and with how Alianza reaches out to the larger Willamette and Salem communities.
As a high school tutor, Aguilar Alvarado builds Alianza’s community by welcoming kids to participate in the club through Willamette Academy, a college access program for kids in the Salem and Keizer school districts. Parents come to see events their kids are involved with and let friends know, too. Alianza reaches out to local businesses in the Salem Latinx community. The club tries to be as accessible as possible, introducing the Latinx culture to those who often feel like outcasts from it, never having learned Spanish or growing up in places without a Latinx presence. Alianza is all about an open door, and an open door is what led to a crowded room full of smiling people Friday night.
The mariachi began a cover of “Por un Amor.” All the instruments paused as one of the lead singers sang a long high note that made people look at each other and mouth “wow.” An applause followed that was as long as the note and conversation started up again. Next was a quick little tune, and a quick little old couple took to the floor and danced to it better than any teenager.
There was something bittersweet about it all, people celebrating harder because they hadn’t had the chance to celebrate in so long. COVID-19 still lingers over every aspect of our lives. Part of what made Alianza so happy with the event was the turnout in comparison to 2021, which was little more than three families. It had been a long rain, but this room full of smiles was more than enough reason to persevere. “I’ve almost seen death,” Aguilar Alvarado said, “so now I’m living . . . not just surviving.”
Día de los Muertos is as much about celebrating life as it is about honoring the dead. The food mostly gone, the mariachi taking a break after a rendition of “La Llorona,” the attention turned to an adorably chubby baby. A good sized crowd formed around the little guy, everyone making funny faces to try and get him to smile. They were only partly successful, but they were together in the effort. If anything, they were smiling plenty themselves.