El Colegio students celebrate life and memory on Day of the Dead

Aztec dance at Day of the Dead event
Gysel Zangano, 15, performed in the Aztec dance that opened El Colegio's Day of the Dead event in Minneapolis on Saturday, November 1 2014.
Marion Renault / MPR News

Day of the Dead falls a day after Halloween. But for students at El Colegio high school the two holidays share seasonal proximity and little else.

Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is devoted to honoring deceased family and community members with memento-filled ofrendas (altars), processions and cemetery visits.

"It's more than eating candy,"said Edwin Moralez a tenth-grader at the Minneapolis charter school where most students are first or second generation Spanish-speaking Americans.

Moralez recently emigrated from Mexico with his mother and two aunts. This year his family's ofrenda--for two cousins who fell victim to violent drug cartels--will be simple. Because they have no family photos in the U.S., he said, it will include only flowers and candles.

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Saturday's annual Day of the Dead celebration at El Colegio on Bloomington Avenue began with a candlelit procession, led by Aztec dancers. It ended inside the school where three principle altars --dedicated to Nelson Mandela, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maya Angelou --were on display along with altars made for family and community members.

Gysel Zangano, 15, performed in the Aztec dance. She said her family didn't celebrate Day of the Dead until they lost a close family member four years ago.

Because her family found so much solace in gathering to remember their relative, she said the holiday brings her a different kind of joy than Halloween does, especially when she dances for its celebration.

"You can feel the spirits - it's beautiful," she said. "With Day of the Dead, you're really honoring someone -- it's meaningful."

Over the past month, El Colegio and Normandale Community College students and neighborhood volunteers pulled together to create the altars. Some remained at the school and some were taken to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts to be put on display.

Day of the Dead procession
Israel Aranola joined Saturday's Day of the Dead procession outside El Colegio high school in Minneapolis.
Marion Renault / MPR News

The idea is to investigate what identified a person while they were living and gather representative items in an inviting place for the deceased, said the school's events coordinator Yolanda Martinez.

"It's kind of calling them back to the space," Martinez said. "A lot of times people just assume let's just throw [in] a picture or some candles-- but you have to really represent that person."

El Colegio's Nelson Mandela ofrenda held rooibos tea, a soccer ball and a stack of books by Frederick Douglass, Karl Marx, William Shakespeare and Che Guevara. The school's Gabriel Garcia Marquez altar included Columbian Sello Rojo coffee and a peacock feather, and Maya Angelou's held a bottle of wine and a bright blue bird ornament hanging in a cage.

What you display in an ofrenda is less important than the care you put into it, said Marlon Ferrey, a manager at Centro Cultural Chicano.

"It could be a simple table with a picture and a little bit of bread -- but if you pour a lot of spirit, a lot of soul and love into that, it can be really powerful," he said.

Friends and family typically gather to share memories about the deceased and decide on what to include in the ofrenda's collection of things.

Landon Nelson, El Colegio's Dean of Students, said the process can be therapeutic. After a student passed away, he and one of the student's best friends swapped stories and created a Day of the Dead ofrenda for him, before giving it to the boy's family.

"It was so calming to me, because I got to spend this time... talking about what he liked. Spending the time together, putting it together -- that was really good for me in dealing with the loss of a student," said Nelson.

Coordinator Martinez said it can be frustrating to balance Day of the Dead's significance with Halloween's competing attention.

"We understand as new Americans, and as first or second generation Americans, our kids want to celebrate Halloween," she said. "It's hard to manage the two, especially being one day after the other."

Ferrey said by celebrating the traditional holiday, some high school students are planting new cultural roots for their recently uprooted families.

"Day of the Dead brings a connection to Latino American students--whether from third grade to high school --who feel very connected to this because it's something they've seen their moms do or their grandmas do," he said.

One corner of El Colegio's Saturday event was filled with an ofrenda made by Vangilena Ortega and her brother Mark for their father who died in 1977.

Mark Ortega said he feels the ofrenda helps keep his father's memory alive. And the grandchildren he never met are able to create new memories with him through it.

"Thirty years later, he's just as loved," said Ortega.

The Minneapolis Institute of the Arts is displaying 14 ofrendas made by El Colegio students using wooden crates through November 24.

The MIA's collection includes one made by ninth grader Becky Garcia, who said she dedicated her altar to the many Mexicans she has known who have died in gang violence.

Garcia said she's proud to be able to share her message to the large crowds the museum and El Colegio's Dia de los Muertos celebration attracts.

"I'm doing something that's not just for a closed group. It's for something bigger," she said.