Stephanie Martinez stood in front of a makeshift altar, staring at a photo collage of her close friend Julian Gutierrez, a 15-year-old James Logan High School freshman who passed away in February.
Stephanie, 17, met Julian when the two were in middle school and quickly became friends. They’d hang out and play soccer together often. When news came of his death, Stephanie was struck hard. But she’s learned not to mourn the loss, but to celebrate Julian’s life.
On Thursday, Nov. 10, Stephanie placed a photo collage of Julian on an altar as part of a Dia de Los Muertos project and celebration at .
“It represents the dead and keeps them alive with us,” said Stephanie of the popular Mexican holiday.
She was one of 15 students who converted a vacant office at the alternative high school into a shrine for the dead.
Led by Maricela Reynoso, the school’s community liaison, the Dia de Los Muertos project is meant to be a positive and joyous occasion.
“This is very important to us and our students because our students experience loss and don’t know how to cope with it. Sometimes that loss makes them lose focus,” Reynoso said. “This is a way to remember them and to experience another way of seeing death. It doesn’t have to be sad.”
“It’s not the end of life, it’s the beginning of their new life,” she added.
Though Dia de los Muertos is observed Nov. 2, the school held a belated celebration last week due to scheduling. During the event, the students held a feast and unveiled their project: the office-turned-shrine.
Drawings and pictures adorned the walls. Papel picado, perforated paper with intricate designs, hung from the ceiling. The altar — the centerpiece of the room — was decorated with portraits of students’ lost loved ones and toys, trinkets and other items to represent their friends and relatives’ character.
Candles and lights were also spread throughout the altar to help guide the spirits, Reynoso said. Students also placed a plate of food for the spirits, which Reynoso said highlights the humorous side of the tradition. “They’re bones, so they must be starving,” she said.
Precilia Andrade, 17, paid tribute to her older brother Victor, who was 13 when he passed away from cancer.
“Even though he passed away, I feel that he’s still with me all the time,” Precilia said.
She also placed photos on the altar of two other relatives who passed — her uncle Michael, who passed away last year, and her great grandfather Frank Perez, who died of a heart attack seven years ago. Perez fought in World War II. To honor that, Precilia placed a folded American flag behind her great grandfather’s photograph.
Rachel Zepeda, 19, joined the group to celebrate the life of her brother, also named Victor. He was 21 when he was involved in a fatal train accident in 2008. Zepeda said participating in the Dia de Los Muertos event helped her remember “not only the sadness, but the happy things.”
Also participating in last week’s event was Conley Caraballo principal Mireya Casarez. She brought photos of a niece who passed away two years ago, along with miniature coffins decorated with images to represent her niece and her father, who passed away in 1977. Casarez said she started celebrating Dia de Los Muertos ever since her father’s passing.
“I felt like I needed him to be a part of my life,” Casarez said.
Maria Elena Rodriguez, a counselor at Chabot College, was a special guest at last week’s event. She said the Dia de Los Muertos tradition is rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S. She's personally attended festivals from the Bay Area to Iowa. She said the events help people come to terms with the circle of life.
“It’s nice to be with young people who know life and death go together,” Rodriguez said last Thursday. “Our energy always goes on and it’s always in a good place.”