She was traveling to a village to witness the Mexican holiday, known in English as the Day of the Dead, and had to travel through a water canal in Xochimilco, an ancient part of Mexico that dates back to the time of the Aztecs.
Mujica, a 1962 UNC graduate and former director of educational outreach for the Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at UNC and Duke, hired a boat and rode through darkness to the town.
She said the image that rose out of the darkness of the canal upon her arrival was enchanting.
“The people were in the cemetery, and there was all this light,” she said. “There was some music from a band and people wandering around. It was just magical — it was absolutely magical to me.”
Mujica originally went to Mexico with her father on vacation but decided to stay after falling in love with the people and the culture.
“I really stayed because I wanted to learn Spanish, and I was in a town where they had a very good language school,” she said.
Mujica said in her years in Mexico, during which time she married and had children, her family engaged in some parts of the Day of the Dead celebration, like eating the traditional bread, but didn’t go to the cemeteries.
It was only after she returned to the United States in 1985 that she began making traditional Day of the Dead altars for display in museums and other art spaces.
“I found it to be something I thought would add to the community — an understanding of different cultures and traditions,” she said. “I was in Latin American studies and working with community outreach. It seemed like something that could kind of fill that need.”
There are many different origin stories for the Mexican holiday, which is traditionally celebrated between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2.
Some writers believe it’s a manifestation of the Mexican practice of looking at death with laughter.
Mujica thinks it came from traditions so ancient they can be traced back to pre-Columbian times, when people set aside the months of September and October to celebrate the dead.
As time went on, different traditions merged to create the modern culture of the holiday, some of which will be celebrated with the Carolina Hispanic Association Dia de los Muertos social today.
Freshman Kristen Gardner, first-year chairwoman for CHispA, is helping to organize the event. She said she wants it to be inclusive of but not limited to Latinos.
The celebration will begin with a trivia game to test what people know about the holiday and determine stereotypes they might have.
“Based on those responses, we’re going to lead into a discussion. We really want the discussion to be open and based on personal experience,” she said.
“Those who don’t celebrate the Day of the Dead, we want them to speak up about what they do, maybe if they celebrate Halloween or have another way to honor the dead.”
When the Spanish conquered Mexico, they incorporated the Christian All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day into their celebration. In the 1800s, skeletons became a staple in Day of the Dead decorations after a cartoonist began drawing caricatures of skeletons in his work.
But the purpose of the Day of the Dead remained the same, serving as a time to remember the lives of the departed.
Mujica said the holiday’s central belief is that the dead will visit their family members in spirit if the family prepares an altar and a feast of their favorite foods. She said the altars are typically adorned with candles and pictures of the deceased with personalized touches.
“If somebody smoked a cigarette, they’ll put a cigarette there, or if it was a child, they’ll put candy — special things that people liked,” she said. “For my mother, I always put out chocolate because she loved chocolate.”
Mujica said in the early afternoon on the Day of the Dead, families gather at the altar and eat the food they have prepared for the dead. Then they take the celebration to the cemetery.
“The belief is that first, the departed come to the house and share the meal and then you accompany them back to the cemetery because they’re going to go back to wherever they came from, whatever your belief is, and so you want to accompany them back to the cemetery,” she said.
But Mujica said it isn’t a solemn holiday.
“It’s sort of a happy thing because you’ve been remembering your ancestors and enjoying their presence, and then they’re going to go back to where they came from and you’re going to get ready for the next year,” she said.
Mujica said important aspects of the celebration include the flower of the Day of the Dead — known in English as the marigold — Day of the Dead bread and candy skulls.
Gardner said the thing she finds most interesting about the holiday is that it’s been adopted by cultures both in and outside of Mexico.
“The coolest thing is the variance in the way that people celebrate this holiday. It’s most commonly practiced in Mexico, but there are other countries that do celebrate either the Day of the Dead or holidays that are similar to the Day of the Dead,” she said. “That’s really interesting in that it reflects a common culture that many Latino countries do share but how each one has its own little flair.”
Jenice Ramirez, vice president of Immersion for Spanish Language Acquisition in Chapel Hill, said the organization — which caters to young Spanish speakers in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Durham — will also be celebrating the Day of the Dead.
ISLA will host a Day of the Dead festival on Sunday that will have crafts for children, popular Latin American foods and folk dances.
“Family is a huge thing in the Hispanic culture, and this is their way of doing that — of sharing their culture and bringing their families together and celebrating,” she said.
Mujica said she will be celebrating the Day of the Dead this year and has invited a group of people to her home. She said she has made an altar to which guests will be able to add.
“I’ve found that people really like that,” she said. “People here react to it and understand it the more they see it and experience it.”
She specifically remembers something she saw in some Mexican towns: Residents would take all of the petals off of a marigold flower and make a trail from a home altar out to the gate of the house to guide the spirits in.
“That’s really very beautiful,” she said. “That’s a special thing.