Remembering through art
Day of the Dead and Halloween juxtapose one another: One holiday celebrates the life of those deceased, while the other fears death.
"It's pretty much the exact opposite of Halloween," Alexa Erickson, a senior at Wilsonville High School said. "I know a lot of my friends got confused with Day of the Dead and thought it was another Halloween, but it's really about celebrating life rather than focusing on death."
Though both holidays are on Oct. 31, Day of the Dead, or 'Día de los Muertos' — a Mexican holiday that has gained momentum in the U.S. over the years — lasts until Nov. 2 and celebrates the lives of those who've died.
On Wednesday, Nov. 1, the holiday was celebrated locally, with easily 700 people flocking to Wilsonville High School for its Day of the Dead celebration. The evening was filled with traditional art crafted mainly by WHS and Inza R. Wood Middle School students, a professional mariachi band and WHS's Tres Diamantes mariachi band, traditional folklórico dancers from Boeckman Creek Primary, kid-friendly activities and food.
"I felt like it would be a good tradition to bring to Wilsonville High School because it would represent (the Latino) portion of the population, and (be) a means of uniting people together and (be beneficial) for people that are not Latino to get to know what Day of the Dead is so they're informed, so they get to share in the customs and traditions," said art teacher Angennette Escobar, who started the tradition at WHS three years ago. "I felt like it was a very important opportunity as well as an artistic opportunity for students to make art and represent their feelings about Day of the Dead or those that they've lost through their art, so that's why we have an art exhibit during Day of the Dead."
Erickson was one of Escobar's students who made a "nicho" for the art exhibit — a dedication to Day of the Dead or a specific person, for example, usually in shadowbox form.
"I didn't think I had an idea around my box other than the Day of the Dead, but I kind of put my own spin on it," Erickson said. "I love sparkly things and I incorporated it throughout my box to make it more personal to me and what I enjoy."
For Escobar, her nicho was dedicated to her mother.
"It's a happy positive experience too, it's not like Halloween where you're afraid of the skeleton and skulls and stuff, you're really happy and remembering the day and those who have passed on," Erickson said. "Everyone's having and going through a similar experience of that pain...you're all in it together. It's this feeling of warmth, just having other people there with you going through similar things."
The artwork shown on display was generally decorated with sugar skulls that represent a departed soul, calacas — playful skeletons — and flowers to represent remembrance.
"It is said that the fragrance of the marigold is so pungent that the dead can smell it," Escobar said. "What they do is they line the streets from the cemetery to the homes with marigold petals so the dead can find their way back home."
Erickson has found the culture and Day of the Dead traditions to be very interesting artistically, since she only learned about the holiday from Spanish class. But she also saw the celebration to be culturally beneficial to everyone.
"I think it's important for students to recognize other cultures that aren't their own and it's really important right now in our time to be more aware of other traditions, because even if you don't believe in the same thing, it's important to at least know about these ideals and other people so you can understand their point-of-view and where they're coming from," Erickson said. "It also provides a good way for people that aren't at their native home to still feel like they're at home without having a strict enforcement of, 'No, you can't celebrate your own culture, your own traditions.'"
Ultimately, this was the goal Escobar had in mind — to make students more aware of other cultures.
"I feel like I'm sharing not only my culture, but my people's culture, and it feels so good to have people like Alexa and people that come to the events, appreciate that," Escobar said. "I feel like the culture is given a face and character, and it really combats all of the negative things you hear on TV about immigrants. I feel like that's my life's ambition — to continuously teach people about the Mexican culture, traditions and art."