Día de los Muertos

Propped against the wall at an awkward angle, an animal-hide satchel holds a tiny plastic skeleton

In a dim room flickering with candles, Doreen Day is thinking about her grandson. Leaning on a table tucked into a corner of St. Paul's Guadalupe Alternative Program High School, Doreen and her 22-year-old son James Day stare at a photo of a seven-month-old infant. A clean, dry pacifier tips over by the edge of the frame. A bowl of chicken nuggets and a bottle of red Gatorade remain untouched beside it. Toys are scattered everywhere. Propped against the wall at an awkward angle, an animal-hide satchel holds a tiny plastic skeleton.

"His name was Chase," James says, gesturing toward the photo of his eldest brother's son. "He died in his sleep." That was two years ago. Tonight, Chase's father is absent, but James and Doreen, an art teacher here at GAP, have created this altar-like ofrenda for him in honor of Día de los Muertos, Mexico's Day of the Dead. Every November 1 and 2, Doreen and fellow GAP instructor René Lopez help students of all different ethnic backgrounds assemble shrines like these, urging them to bring modern equivalents of the holiday's traditional offerings: bowls of fruit, crepe-paper flowers, candles, papier-mâché skulls, and old photos of friends and family members who have died.

In Mexico, Día de los Muertos is rooted in the belief that those who are gone have passed on to a higher place. It is supposed to be a day of celebration. But looking at Chase's photo, Doreen finds it hard to celebrate. He was so young.

Glancing around the room, the faces honored in the ofrendas seem to get younger and younger: middle-aged mothers, teenage brothers, children. Black and white snapshots of a heavyset woman with a beehive hairdo are pasted onto sign that reads "In Loving Memory of Nancy, 1949-2001." A scrapbook lies below it, filled textbook diagrams of the stomach, pancreas, and gallbladder, and a detailed essay titled "Understanding Cancer," which is printed in blue, cursive font. To the left, plastic skeletons knife-fight in front of model low riders--a blurry picture of Miguel "Psycho" Navarro, a former GAP student and gang member who was murdered, seems to look on from another corner of the room. Nearby, a ceramic statue of a mother and baby angel, wings chipped and featureless faces coated in brown paint, looms over a frowning infant. His photo is labeled simply: "Dawane."

A handwritten message notes that Dawane was two years old when he died. Chase hadn't yet reached one year. Doreen has vivid memories of the night that it happened. It was snowing. The telephone rang. Her daughter-in-law was on the other end of the line--something was wrong with the baby. Doreen set off in her car, listening to the radio, changing the stations, trying not to think about what could happen in the next few hours. "Before she called, I was looking outside and thinking that it was beautiful out there," she remembers. "It was one of those nights when you look out and see the snow, and you think, You know, this isn't so bad. But as soon as you step outside, you realize how cold it is."

Her grandson died of SIDS. "In so many cultures, we're told that we're not supposed to cry when something like this happens. We're not supposed to talk about it," she says. "That's why I wrote it all down." Doreen composed a poem about the experience. And tonight, she allows her 14-year-old daughter, Alana Dickenson, to read it in front of a room full of students who have lost parents, grandparents, and siblings. "Kids feel like they're not supposed to grieve," she explains. "I want to say to these kids, This is what death is like. It's going to happen to me. And some day, it's going to happen to you. You have to find your own way to deal with it."

 
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