Halloween at Yale is remembered differently after the fall of 2015. I don’t know if I can separate our annual festivities from what happened that year: the Sigma Alpha Epsilon — rebranded in the spring of 2016 — Halloween party that allegedly excluded black women, the infamous email excusing cultural appropriation. “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended,” Erika Christakis said. That fall was a flash point for students — especially women of color — who organized against racism at the institution they belonged to.
A few days after, students filled the Afro-American Cultural Center for a town hall. The Black Students Alliance at Yale came together to address both Christakis and her husband Nicholas Christakis — the then “master” of Silliman College who left the meeting early — and SAE. I didn’t take notes, I didn’t record the date. I was a first year. Later that week, professor Jafari Allen opened his class — Black Radical Feminisms — for community conversation on how to move forward. One of the demands to myself and other white students: Be there with us not only when we mourn, but also when our communities experience joy, when we celebrate.
Mid-February, I arrive at my first rally organized by Unidad Latina en Acción an immigrant-rights organization. I had just found out I couldn’t afford to take medical leave. Someone takes the mic. “To the Yale students in the crowd today, where have you been? Where will you be next?” I remember these questions as I walk down the steps to the basement of First and Summerfield United Methodist Church every Monday, I remember them when I see their familiar faces in the front lines of the soldaderas.
It’s around seven o’clock on Nov. 3, and I’m at the Día de los Muertos procession in Fair Haven. ULA celebrates it every year. It’s my first time here. Pedro Lopez from Guatemala paints my face. A Mayan Nahual: “El viento,” he says. “Es la vida. There’s a lot of wind, today.” I’ve met him before. He came from Sacatepéquez, Guatemala to New Haven in late September to craft the large catrina puppets. From noon to midnight, he was in the bodega, cutting wood for human-sized coffins, making stilts for Circus Ollin, painting skeletons.
I was asked to stand in the front — I still don’t know how to feel about taking that role — with the mujeres soldaderas. These women and their daughters march in colorful skirts and gold-bullet straps, inspired by militant women in the Mexican Revolution. This year, organizers dedicated the celebration to four Latinx women who died at the hands of police, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“Marchando, marchando por un mundo sin fronteras! Somos las mujeres, las mujeres soldaderas!”
We stop at a corner that I don’t recognize. Volunteers from Sex Workers & Allies Network come together at the intersection, opening red umbrellas. A ULA leader, Vanesa Suarez, joins the group. “We’re here to remember the sex workers who died in the streets this year, Ines Perez and Leila Rivera.” Everyone is a witness: Pedro from Guatemala, Circo Ollin from Mexico, the low-riders, ULA members, SWAN leader Beatrice Codianni, the salsa band troupe, Fair Haven neighbors peering out from their windows.
For ULA, Día de los Muertos is one of the biggest events of the year, celebrating lives of loved ones. They set up an altar — hand-painted skulls, pan de muertos, photos of those who have passed. Lots of flowers. They remember what their ancestors taught them, keeping this alive, especially in the face of so much violence.
Día de los Muertos isn’t Halloween. However, it contends with the same questions that were raised back in 2015. The importance of the student movement — Next Yale — cannot be overstated. Next Yale wasn’t just about a racist email, or even a racist frat party. It was about imagining a better Yale for students of color. Three years later, we can consider another question: What does a better Yale for New Haven look like?
In Fall of 2016, ULA demanded that Yale change the name. Every Friday, New Haven residents stood outside of Grace Hopper College — referred to then as “Formerly Known As.” Even while we were on vacation, they stood at the intersection of Elm and College, holding an orange banner in front of traffic each time the light flashed red. In mid-February, several protestors sat down with the banner on the crosswalk, awaiting arrest.
When the new name of Grace Hopper College was announced, none of the New Haven activists were mentioned. Corey Menafee, the Yale Dining worker who started it all, was never mentioned. For President Peter Salovey, the conversation was over. A battle fought by New Haveners was, once again, settled on Yale’s terms.
To be at Yale is to be implicated in the ways Yale occupies New Haven. It’s hard to bear. But if we go out into the community, attending events like Día de los Muertos, we may begin to see how we are also implicated in the work that New Haven activists began long before any of us were here. When we show up, we are with the community not only when they mourn, but also when they celebrate. We begin to honor how organizations like ULA are central to an ongoing conversation about race and belonging in New Haven. We take stock, stepping off campus into a city with history and politics that are intertwined with our on-campus movements. They’re here now — they’ll be here long after we graduate.
Lucy Sternbach is a senior in Saybrook College. Nika Zarazvand is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact them, respectively, at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .