Lawrence University Mariachi Ensemble’s Día de Los Muertos celebration honors tradition

In October, Halloween can often dominate the whole of culture in the U.S. once the first of the month arrives. Media, stores and even simple day-to-day activities all seem to suddenly center around carving pumpkins, planning costume parties and preparing for trick-or-treaters. Whether we like it or not, Halloween is all around us. That means it can be nice to get a little break every once in a while, especially during the chaos of Halloween weekend itself.  

Perhaps that’s partially why on Saturday, Oct. 30, the Lawrence University Mariachi Ensemble (LUMÉ) drew such a crowd for their outdoor celebration of the Mexican fall holiday Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). However, knowing the Lawrence community, it’s no surprise that a visible excitement for learning and for embracing a variety of cultures contributed to the phenomenal turnout for this beautiful event. During this celebration, LUMÉ shared beloved traditional mariachi tunes, notable songs from popular Día de Los Muertos media and stories exploring the background and significance of the Día de Los Muertos holiday. 

Born last year out of sophomore Jando Valdez’s (’24) vision, LUMÉ has rapidly established a massive presence on campus through its lively concerts and performances at Lawrence events, such as LUaroo 2021. With their Día de Los Muertos celebration, the ensemble continued both its performance momentum and its emphasis on highlighting various elements of Mexican culture, in this case centering upon a famous traditional Mexican holiday. Here, Valdez and the ensemble, assisted by Cesar Donaire (’25) and a team of Conservatory music educators, led us on a journey outlining the facets of this holiday’s traditions and overall significance. With Valdez leading in mainly words and Donaire in mainly dance, the audience was exposed to the lyrics and dances of mariachi favorites with themes relevant to Día de los Muertos. The band played quite a number of popular mariachi tunes, including songs such as the romantic “La Llorona” (The Weeping Woman) and the extremely popular “La Bruja” (The Witch). The band also offered renditions of songs from Coco, a popular 2017 Disney-Pixar film with a plot centered around Día de Los Muertos. These selections included an original arrangement of the upbeat “Un Poco Loco,” a tune in the jarabe tapatío (Mexican hat dance) style featuring improvisational solos from various ensemble members and the bittersweet ballad “Remember Me,” which closed out the set.  

In the middle of their performance, Valdez and the music education team, organized by Betsy Kowalski Jett, read and acted out the storybook Día de Los Muertos by Roseanne Greenfield Thong. The words of this bilingual children’s book were truly at the heart of the celebration; the team brought to life scenes of ofrendas (offerings to the dead) tucked away in homes, sweet pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) being baked in the oven and the colorful calaveras (skulls) for which the holiday is perhaps most widely known outside of Mexico. The group’s expressive reading of Thong’s text really cemented the significance of the holiday and painted vivid imagery of what it entails, making this celebration even more informative and special.  

As the fun and learning spurred by this Saturday celebration drew to a close, Valdez imparted upon the audience a final message about the potential relevance of Día de Los Muertos in our own lives. Clearly speaking from the heart, he emphasized the beauty that stems from recognizing the meaning and role that elements of this holiday, namely ofrendas, altars for lost loved ones and cempasúchil, the marigold or “flower of the dead,” can have in our homes and hearts. He encouraged normalizing elements of the Día de Los Muertos holiday across cultures and physically honoring those we love who we have lost. Explaining that traditions from this holiday can bring a special mindfulness into the whole year, he ended with a stirring reminder: it is in remembering our lost loved ones that we may keep them always close to us.  

Be sure to check out LUMÉ’s fall concert on Sunday, Nov. 7, at 6 pm in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. A link to the concert livestream is available via Facebook and the Lawrence University website.