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Celebrating My First Día De Los Muertos Away From Home: A First Gen Mexican-American Experience

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCLA chapter.

My mom and my abuelita came to this country to give me and my family an opportunity, abandoning the life they knew and loved, as well as their dreams, for the sake of chasing my own. I owe them everything I am today and I cherish the ways in which they showed me never to forget where I come from. 

Ofrendas have been part of my family’s tradition every year and are set up on the days leading up to the first of November. After my abuelita passed away in 2016, I recalled a moment when I walked in on my mom scattering cempasúchil petals from the front door to where she had set up an ofrenda for her mom. At that moment, a profound realization of the significance of this tradition washed over me. After that encounter, I helped my mom set up an ofrenda every year until Fall 2022, when I was the first and only one in my family to leave for school. 

I chose a school away from home to broaden my horizons and follow my dreams, just like the women in my family had taught me, but what I didn’t take into account when I picked UCLA was how much I was going to miss home. In the beginning I didn’t know anyone relatively close to LA; eventually, I met some really cool and interesting people and I’m grateful to this day, but I still lacked a sense of community. 

In my first quarter at UCLA, I took a class from the Chicana/o Studies department that was offered only in the fall called Day Of The Dead Ritual. It’s one of my favorite classes that I’ve taken during my time here at UCLA. The class was structured around the development of indigenous practices and traditional celebrations to the common and well-known celebratory traditions we know today. I was so lucky to be placed in a group with classmates who later became my friends, while meeting other Mexican-American students. Our group was tasked with creating an ofrenda of our loved ones, using traditional practices from different regions in Mexico. I not only learned a lot about myself but also discovered how beliefs and traditions serve to preserve the memories of our loved ones.

Still though, I grew more and more homesick; I called my friends and family back home and spoke with my mom every night before bed. There’s this phenomenon called “first-generation guilt” where kids who go to prestigious universities essentially feel bad about being at those schools, because we know these experiences and opportunities are ones that our parents didn’t get the chance to have. We are our parents’ American dream. But these moments are as motivating as they are tough; these moments fuel our fire, drive and inspire our own dreams of one day giving back to the community that made us. 

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In the days leading up to the Day Of The Dead and being away from my family for the first time, I desperately wished my abuelita was still with us, still with me. It felt unfair doing all of this for her when she was no longer there. One day, as I was walking to my dorm after class, I heard music and naturally, I followed. The sounds of mariachi instruments and Spanish lyrics led me to a performance from UCLA’s very own Mariachi Band, Uclatlán. I sat there and listened to the songs my abuelita loved to sing. A very dear and special song, “Cielito Lindo – Canta Y No Llores” by Pedro Infante, was performed. My grandma loved singing it with me. The song title translates to “Lovely Sky—Sing and Don’t Cry,” which is what she would always say to me. I felt so grateful in that moment to have a sense of connection with my abuelita and with my culture. 

A later night, I came home with two vases of cempasuchil flowers and a picture of my beautiful abuelita. I didn’t have a lot of room in my dorm, but I still made my very own ofrenda while singing some of her favorite songs. 

Odette is a first-generation Mexican-American senior completing her undergraduate degree at the University of California Los Angeles. This is her first year on the HerCampus editorial team and is super excited about being able to improve her portfolio and experience as a writer. Outside of HerCampus Odette enjoys reading books of fiction and writing songs and poetry.