By Diana Martinez and Gabriel Arizon
Teachers and students from San Fernando Senior High School are preparing a large-sized altar for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) held at their school. But this altar will be set up not just for those who attend or work at the school but for the first time will invite the local community to attend the event and contribute to the altar by placing meaningful items and photos of their loved ones. The event and altar will be held in front of the school’s auditorium on Tuesday, Nov.1.
Teachers at the school are aware that this particular holiday — with its indigenous roots — provides an excellent opportunity to teach culture, art, music, both indigenous and Spanish language and history. It involves many topics, has crossed borders and opens the door for a thoughtful discussion about Indigenous and Latino culture.
It brings a meaningful discussion about a cultural belief expressed through a holiday tradition that celebrates life and doesn’t fear death but instead sees the passing of a loved one as life’s natural cycle.
San Fernando High School has a mostly Latino school population but many students are unaware of their own cultural history that includes this tradition.
Art teacher Jacquelyn Torres is spearheading the event and has visualized expanding it to the larger community since she was a student at San Fernando High School.
“In teaching my students about what the Day of the Dead is traditionally in Mexico, we did talk about La Catrina, and how that is rooted in an artwork that the artist José Guadalupe Posada made, and how it becomes the signature [artwork] symbolic of all Dia de los Muertos events,” said Torres.
It’s natural for her to see the art at the center of this holiday — from the placement and use of cempasúchil(marigold flowers), the artwork, the placement of items that have meaning for the person — the altar becomes an evolving art piece in itself that grows as each person makes their contribution to it.
Torres said her students are making either sugar or ceramic skulls and traditional paper flowers.
“We’re also inviting everybody, students and community members, to bring photos of deceased loved ones to share on the community altar.”
Torres talks about not only how it’s celebrated today, but how it’s changed over time.
“I go in-depth into the celebration, the history, the origins of it, what the traditions were and what they are currently, how religious and European influence changed what it used to be to what it is today,” Torres said.
Torres, an alumna of San Fernando High recalls when she was a student, individual classes would make their own altars and there would even be a contest to choose the best one, (which isn’t the intent of this ancient tradition) but there wasn’t an event for the community by the time she graduated in 2001.
Now a teacher, she said she wanted to involve more people and extend the teaching that she’s doing in the classroom to involve the larger community.
Torres has brought on the talents of other teachers at the school including the performing arts and Spanish departments to help with organizing the event and to contribute to the event.
Music teacher and marching band and mariachi instructor Sergio Alonso will not only be providing music for the event, but also a 12-foot tall structure that can also be adorned as part of the altar.
Alonso is also a noted ethnomusicologist who understands the deeper meaning and connections that too many now neglect as the holiday becomes more commercialized and mainstream.
His students will present thematic music that is in sync with the holiday. Student Norteño and Sierreño musicians will focus on corridos that tell stories of tragic death. SFHS Band and Mariachi will unite to perform the classic songs La Llorona and La Bruja as well as perform the contemporary songs Recuerdame and Cumbia de Los Muertos.
There is so much about this cultural tradition that brings teachable moments for the classroom and discussion among those who attend.
“The pandemic brought about an awareness among young people about how fragile and temporary life is,” said Alonso. “This is important, especially among those who come from families where speaking of death is taboo — who many believe that ‘speaking of death is inviting death.’Dia de los Muertos in turn, allows students to view death as something beautiful by harnessing the memory of their lost loved ones to bring them to life once a year.”
Other teachers volunteered their students to help with decorations or making posters to help to get the word out.
Two students will play the part of emcees for the event, one of them is a dual language student who will introduce people in Spanish.
Those who want to bring photos of their loved ones to be placed on the community altar are encouraged to bring copies of them to avoid losing the originals.
The altar will also honor John Joensu, one of the school’s teachers who recently passed away this past summer.
This holiday holds deep lessons still to be learned.
“By reflecting on and celebrating their dearly departed, students may develop a broader understanding of their own lives, cultivate a deeper respect and appreciation for all lives and hopefully positively influence the decisions they make in this life,” said Alonso.
The event takes place on Tuesday, Nov. 1, from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the school. The school’s drill team will perform, there will be an art exhibition, food vendors and a La Catrina contest. Torres’ class will also provide face painting at the event.