Oakland, CA – On Friday, October 27, at 1 p.m., 29 students in Ms. Dordell’s third grade class will take a ceremonial walk from East Oakland’s New Highland Academy Elementary School (8521 A Street) to the 81st Avenue Branch of the Oakland Public Library (1021 81st Avenue), to display their handmade ofrendas. The class will be accompanied by members of the Oakland Scraper Bike Team, Oakland Police Department, the campus’ Family Resource Center, parents, and other students. This is a big day for the students and their families. The walk should take about 30 minutes and will be followed by the gallery opening.
Ofrendas, also known as “niche” boxes, honor and celebrate the lives of ancestors and other community members that have passed away. The project is an annual tradition in Ms. Dordell’s class, and the class has been working on their shoebox-sized “niche” boxes since the start of the school year, in collaboration with the Arts Integration teacher, Ms. Moline.
Four years ago, Ms. Dordell’s class regularly walked the few-blocks to visit the library until one day nearby gunshots forced them back to school. Fearing for the students’ safety, the school community chose to suspend their library visits. As a way to protest the gun violence and take back access to their library, the students now make the walk annually with police escorts to deliver their Día de Los Muertos ofrendas.
From their comments, it is evident the students are personally touched by the experience of making ofrendas for lost loved ones:
· “I felt emotional because I did not talk about my Grandpa a lot. My Mom and I were so excited to decorate my niche box. I like to draw and paint things. I miss my Grandpa but I learned to let go.” Julian Martinez, age 8
· “I felt happy and sad when I was working on my project. I was remembering my Grandfather. I felt happy because I was making him a box. I was trying my best for his box. When my mom went to visit him, he would always joke with her about the dogs. He would say, ‘Tell your Sister, (the dog) hello.’ Katherine Rodriguez Garcia, age 8
· “I learned that spirits of the dead are in butterflies. The spirits come to party on Dia de los Muertos. I learned that Marigolds keep animals away because of the smell. Marigolds also look like the Sun.” Christopher Matias, age 8
“Students have interviewed family members about their ancestors and have learned so much about their loved ones,” says Ms. Dordell. They “studied and learned about various cultural traditions and celebrations associated with Día de Los Muertos. We read books in various genres to enhance their understanding of this celebration. They interviewed and researched the individual they were celebrating. They also wrote a biography about this individual that will be displayed alongside the boxes. This yearly project has supported and developed cultural understanding in our diverse school community.”
Meanwhile, students in Elizabeth Crueger’s third grade class at Acorn Woodland Elementary School (1025 81st Ave.) will make masks for Día de Los Muertos, and will meet the procession halfway and join them the rest of the way to the library.
An altar will be set up in the library’s entrance area for the display of the ofrendas. The student-artists will conclude their ceremonial walk with a “gallery opening” to view the altar and enjoy horchata and pan dulce. The ofrendas will be on display through November 10 so that friends, family, and the community can visit the exhibit.