The dead came calling at Cal State Dominguez Hills last week.
A trail of flower petals guided the soul of Ramona Trujillo to the office of Prof. Miguel Dominguez, where she was serenaded by phantom mariachis and offered tamales, black beans and other favorite foods that adorned a colorful altar.
No, it was not a scene from a horror flick, or even a Halloween fright house.
The ofrenda , or offering, was an exhibition organized by Dominguez to teach his students about the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition, a mix of religious, cultural and indigenous influences that is increasingly observed among Latinos living in the United States.
Although the event is traditionally held on All Souls Day, Nov. 2, Dominguez organized the ofrenda Tuesday and Wednesday in honor of Trujillo, the deceased grandmother of one of his students.
"It is believed that on the Day of the Dead, a beloved departed one returns for a family visit," said Dominguez, director of the university's Mexican-American studies department.
About 20 students crowded into Dominguez's office to witness the ofrenda. As with any house guest, the spiritual visitor is offered food and drink. A trail of marigold petals is intended to keep the spirit from wandering astray, Dominguez said. The altar for Trujillo was adorned with yellow marigolds and purple streamers, with a black-and-white photograph of her placed in the center.
Symbols of death, such as skulls and crossbones, evoke a shudder in many societies. But in the ofrenda, skulls made of sugar and bread molded into the shape of cadavers have positive connotations. After the ofrenda is taken down from the altar, the food is distributed to family and friends. Children are often encouraged to talk to their spiritual relative during the celebration, he said.
"In Mexican culture, there is not the great fear of death that exists in American society," Dominguez said. "Death and life are not antagonistic. They are complementary."
The ofrenda illustrated a part of Mexican culture that many of his Latino students had never experienced. Robert Chavez, a sophomore art major, said the ofrenda was something new to him and helped him to identify with his heritage.
"My grandparents talked about it, but I had never seen it before," said Chavez, whose family is from Michoacan, Mexico.
Frank Pimental, a sophomore in the Mexican-American studies program, plans to ask his family in Mexicali, Mexico, about the practice.
"I'm going to go home this weekend and nail my dad on filling me in on it," Pimental said. "I'm going to ask whether he used to do these. . . . It's just exciting to learn about your culture."