DEI Committee of Roosevelt Elementary Creates Día de los Muertos Altar

(Photo By: Austin Gebhardt)

An altar display on the Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School field along W Clark Ave. has been organized by the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee to commemorate Día de los Muertos. 

The members of the DEI Committee, who started the group in 2020, decided to build the altar as a COVID-friendly way to educate community members on the Mexican holiday and its cultural origins. After committee members researched the traditions of Día de los Muertos, which is celebrated Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, the whole school was allowed to submit photos of passed loved ones to include in the altar setup. 

Committee members and volunteers then contributed to decorating the altar over the course of three days. The finished offering includes three layers of framed photos adorned with candles, marigolds, paper cutouts and sugar skulls. These elements each carry a unique symbolism in honoring those who have passed. Candles are meant to attract spirits to the altar, as is the scent and vibrant color of marigold flowers. The hanging paper cutouts, called papel picado in Spanish, signify the fragility of life, and the sugar skulls similarly represent the briefness of life. Lastly, the three tiers of the altar symbolize heaven, the earth, and the afterlife.

Co-chair of the committee, Manisha Parikh, says the altar was made to allow those of Mexican heritage to feel seen and heard, as well as to inform school students and staff on the customs of a culture unique from their own. 

“The DEI Committee really is there and was created so that we can elevate the voices of those families that are in our school that might want to highlight their own cultures and identities,” Parikh said. “And so we really look towards our families to be able to give us insight into different traditions, celebrations, different populations that we see in our community.”

In addition to the recent altar project, the committee has put past events together this year to celebrate Women’s History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. During Women’s History Month, a panel of three women shared their life stories to students via Zoom, including navigating their career paths and living with disabilities they possess. Latino speakers visited the school on campus for Hispanic Heritage Month, and each speaker described their country of origin and spoke of their life in the U.S. while explaining how they balance this with honoring their cultural customs. Events like these give students a chance to learn from people of a variety of  backgrounds and find unity in honoring one another’s differences.

(Photo By: Austin Gebhardt)

“It really opens up their minds and makes them have a broader view and a broader sense of people and their hardships, and even helps them have gratitude for what they have and their own privilege,” Parikh said. “For the community, I think that sense of belonging really helps us to just teach that to our children and cultivate a sense of love and understanding for each other.”

Future plans for the committee include conducting Thanksgiving festivities that are engaging for Roosevelt Elementary classes while being mindful of avoiding activities exhibiting cultural appropriation. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, volunteer parents will lead students in executing such projects that spread knowledge on the traditions of Native American communities.

“One of the big topics that we’ve been talking about is dressing up as Native Americans, and how hurtful that is to the Native American community,” Parikh said. “We’re not letting kids wear [Native American regalia] as a Thanksgiving activity. But… we are doing some arts and crafts. One of our committee members came up with an idea to make some jewelry out of pasta and some dolls out of corn husks that were traditionally used by children of the Wampanoag tribe….Kids will start learning and being educated on what are some of the traditional things that they did in this particular community.”

Parikh oversees the DEI Committee with fellow Co-chair, Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh, who focuses on representation for community members with disabilities. Parikh heads pursuits that relate to cultural studies, and together the two form an expansive leadership team. Along with the committee members, they have created a group committed to educating students and their families on the importance of representation for all people.

“When you’re talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, everything goes hand in hand,” Parikh said. “You’re looking at culture, heritage, gender, and disabilities. You’re basically supporting populations that have been marginalized, oppressed or haven’t had as many rights as maybe others in history. So together we make a team. We have committee members that have different interests and expertise. We’ve leveraged their experiences and interests to come out and participate in all our different events and initiatives.”

The Día de los Muertos altar will be on display through Nov. 2.