Students were afraid at first to approach the large public altar in the lower level of the HUB building at Columbia Basin College on Thursday.
But then someone stepped forward to have their face painted, said student Nora Romero, 23, of Kennewick.
"Once they saw people volunteering, the fear went away," Romero said, half of her face resembling a stark but colorful skull.
Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, isn't until Saturday, but the CBC Latino/a Leadership Club opted to celebrate a little early this year.
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Club members said it was an opportunity to showcase their culture and tie the college's Hispanic community together. But it's also a way to connect with non-Hispanic students and teach them about a holiday often tied to the very different holiday of Halloween.
"If it's here and it's known, maybe they'll have a better relationship with Latinos as well," said club member Pedro Ciriano-Perez, 28, of Yakima.
The celebration originates in Mexico and is a time for people to remember relatives and friends who have died. Families build private altars and place artifacts of their loved ones on them, such as photos and jewelry, as well as food and flowers. There is also music and dancing, contributing to a festival-like atmosphere.
Thursday's celebration was meant to be accessible to all CBC students. The public altar was dedicated to public or notable figures who have died, such as pop singer Selena and artist Frida Kahlo. Students could wait in line to have their face painted or watch members of Ballet Folklorico Tonantzin, decked in traditional garb with painted faces, perform dances from Mexico's Jalisco and Vera Cruz regions.
Ciriano-Perez grew up with only vestiges of the holiday and traditions, as do many children of immigrants, he said. It wasn't until he lived in Mexico during his late teens and early 20s that he learned more about the celebration and recognized its cultural importance.
"It was a reawakening," he said.
The club's president, Nathan Gutierrez, said Thursday's event was organized partially to help Latino students who didn't grow up celebrating the holiday learn about it.
But the club also wanted to correct misconceptions. While visiting cemeteries and depictions of skulls and skeletons are similar to aspects of Halloween, Dia de Los Muertos is not a scary or macabre holiday.
"A lot of people mistaken it for Halloween and we have to explain it," said Gutierrez, a 19-year-old student originally from Othello. "It's a kind of cross between Halloween and Memorial Day, with a big stress on the memorial."
Amairani Diaz, 20, of Pasco, said the holiday helps people cope with the concept of death and loss by making light of it.
"I feel like it's very alive," she said. "It's very comforting."
Kaylee Tice, a 16-year-old Running Start student, didn't know much about the holiday before walking through the HUB, she said. But she was happy to learn about a different culture as Romero painted her face.
"And it's a costume I didn't have to deal with," she said, pointing to her face.
w Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver