Staff, students and even classrooms of Jemtegaard Middle School were transformed November 2 as they celebrated Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) to honor Latino students and share in the beauty of their rich culture.

To offer background and an appreciation for the holiday that many JMS students are unaware of or do not understand, short videos featuring students with Latin heritage were created and shown in conjunction with morning announcements the week leading up to the event. Three eighth grade students, Edelaine Barbosa, Kenzy Gutierrez and Abby Picho described what the holiday looks like, how it is celebrated and even shared a few emotional words about the family members they would be honoring. The videos were filmed by Zion Norton, and Easton Curl was the interviewer, both also students.  The idea for hosting the celebration was led by Scott Rainey, JMS 8th Grade US History Teacher.

“El Día de los Muertos means Day of the Dead,” said Barbosa on the video. “It is really a holiday for us to be grateful for our ancestors. We do it all to honor them.”

“We don’t celebrate that they are dead,” explained Picho with a smile. “We honor them and bring our memories back. To do that, we have this big party for them. It is like they are here with us and not gone.”

“In Mexico there are many different ways we celebrate,” said Gutierrez. “Some families create an ofrenda. It is a table with Mexican candles, photos of ancestors, and even flowers.  Others go to the cemetery and stand around the grave. Some people even sing and dance there. Some will also cook food. Either food that their loved one liked or special family recipes.”

The festivities are held worldwide each year on November 1 and 2. “Just like with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it is two days,” explained Barbosa.

“My original intent with encouraging a celebration of dia de muertos at Jemtegaard was to give our Hispanic students a feeling of agency, involvement and ownership of the school,” said Rainey. “Too often this important segment of our community is not recognized for the contributions they bring to Washougal, Washington and the United States.”

According to Rainey, the positive response from Hispanic students, parents and staff has been overwhelming. “Another benefit was what it brought to the Jemtegaard family itself,” he said. “By recognizing this holiday, which is relatively ‘new’ to many non-Hispanic students and staff, we help to build our greater community through understanding.”

All JMS staff were invited to join in the celebration by wearing face paint in the style of a calavera, or skull, – black around eyes and nose and white everywhere else. To lend a hand and authenticity, a group of parent volunteers came to help with the face painting. Approximately one-third of JMS staff and student body participated.  Painting took place in the band room and lasted from 7:15am until after lunchtime.

JMS parent Ambar Tellez-Jurado was one of the volunteers painting faces of excited students and staff. “This is a good chance for me to be involved at school with my student,” she explained. Her daughter, Ambar Nava Tellez, was alongside her helping.

“I have many friends who are Hispanic, and I thought it would be fun to celebrate with them,” said JMS 8th grade student Cole Wilson as he sat, eyes closed, as white and black paint were applied.

María Meza, JMS Speech Language Pathologist, who was born and raised in Mexico also joined in to have her face painted. “Activities like this help students and staff who are of Latin heritage feel celebrated,” she remarked.

As he made plans, Rainey made certain the event was a school-wide celebration and was not perceived as cultural appropriation. “We have been assured by parents, students and staff that el Día de los Muertos is an inclusive, joyous, celebration, and there is no sense of impropriety in non-Hispanics joining in and observing some of the customs,” Rainey explained.

Rainey himself had an ofrenda in his room where he shared a photo of his father along with other students who brought images of departed loved ones.  Barbosa’s mother, Lizbet, came in the night before and helped to set up the beautiful and authentic display of honor.

“I’ve always taught my students that ignorance breeds fear, but knowledge can open doors to friendship and camaraderie,” said Rainey. “The story of America has been a continual folding in of traditions and practices from around the world.” Rainey pointed out that at one time, St. Patrick’s Day was seen as a “foreign” holiday and that he looks forward to the day when El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated and recognized across America just like other festivities that came from abroad.

“The success of this event has meant the world to our Hispanic students,” said Rainey. “It was wonderful for our staff to come together to celebrate them, their families and their beautiful culture. I am honored to be a small part of bringing these traditions to greater recognition in Washougal and look forward to even more widespread celebrations in the future.”