Day of the Dead: Reflecting on the Living

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A student-driven design for an ofrenda at the Tacoma Art Museum celebrated the life of Robert James Downey, Jr., a UW Tacoma student-veteran who died in January 2017.

For the past several years, UW Tacoma Lecturer Augie Machine has enlisted the help of students in the Spanish language and culture classes to build an altar for the Tacoma Art Museum's annual Día de los Muertos celebration. The museum invites members of the community to create altars for anyone, be it family members, friends or celebrities; for example, this year’s event included an altar dedicated to the musician Prince.

Día de los Muertos honors deceased loved ones through a celebration of their lives. Altars (ofrendas) are a central part of the holiday. “There are some traditional things that go on these altars like a glass of water, food and marigolds,” said Machine. “Because we’re interpreting the holiday, we try to take those traditional things and make them work with the theme we’re using.”

In the past, UW Tacoma students have built altars for deceased literary characters and for authors who recently passed away. Last spring Machine broached the subject of this year’s altar with students in his Spanish class. “As a group we decided to honor veterans,” he said. “One of my students was in nurse in the Army during the Vietnam War and she suggested we center it on the student who passed away in the winter.”

The student-designed altar is in the shape of a tent and features personal items such as boots, dog tags and photos.

Robert James Downey Jr. died January 19, 2017 at the age of 46. The Air Force veteran was working on a bachelor’s degree in history at UW Tacoma. “We talked about it and ultimately decided it was the right thing to do,” said Machine.

Work on the altar began months before the holiday, which is typically celebrated November 1 to November 2. Machine kept the project going through his Spanish classes in the summer and fall. Together, he and his students came up with a unique design. “The frame for the altar is a military tent,” he said. “We made the paper marigolds camouflage-colored instead of orange. For food we used MRE's (Meals, Ready to Eat) and we put the water in a canteen cup.”

The altar also included Downey Jr’s motorcycle helmet, combat boots and a picture from his wedding. Machine spoke with Downey Jr’s widow and she agreed to lend personal items for the project. “I think that she was appreciative that we were honoring him,” said Machine.

Museum visitors inscribed personal messages on paper "dog tags" which were then left on the altar.

The students wanted a way for the viewing public to interact with the altar. They made paper dog tags on which people could write down names of veterans they lost to leave on the altar. The installations were on display for two weeks before the art museum's official celebration on November 5. “I originally printed off 150 dog tags but I had to make more because we ran out,” said Machine.

UW Tacoma senior Kimberly Sablan is taking introductory Spanish this fall and assisted with the creation of the altar. The accounting major spent four years in the Air Force. Her husband is currently serving in the Army. “One of the things I value is the sacrifice made by veterans and by those who continue to serve the nation's military,” she said. “When he (Machine) mentioned the altar would be dedicated to Mr. Downey Jr., I didn’t hesitate to get involved.”

Sablan would visit Machine’s office hours every Tuesday and Thursday to help with whatever task was needed. “When you're building it you’re not really thinking about what it means because you’re focused on getting it done in time,” she said. “It didn’t hit me until we finished, this feeling of sadness and appreciation.”

Sablan says this experience provided her with a deeper understanding of Día de los Muertos. The holiday is, in many ways, both personal and communal. “This project is an illustration of the community we have here at UW Tacoma,” said Sablan. “To come together and feel the loss of even one student says a lot about the kind of campus we have.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / November 28, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or