Luiz Rosales, his face shaded by the brim of a sombrero, gave a shy smile and shook his head.
But soon the chant of “dance!” filled the gym at South Baker Intermediate School and Rosales relented to the request from his classmates.
Stomping across the floor, his spurs accenting each step, Rosales demonstrated a traditional dance from Mexico — and soon, in a riot of colorful dresses, he was joined by Maripaz Gonzalez, Lupita Macias, Glendi Luna, Maria Guadalupe Rodriguez, and Iriana Rosales.
This is how South Baker celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month.
The sixth-grade classes have studied Hispanic culture and traditions in October for several years. This year, thanks to grants and a partnership with Crossroads Carnegie Art Center, the school district’s ESL family liaison Ma’lena Wirth could expand assemblies and end the study with a community celebration.
That event happens Friday, Nov. 1, to observe Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This holiday originated in Mexico and Central America as a time to remember loved ones who had passed away.
The Day of the Dead is marked with food, drink, music and parties. According to National Geographic, “On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.”
Baker City’s celebration starts at 5:30 p.m. at Baker High School. Guests enter through the west doors near the gymnasium.
Tokens will be sold for $1 to sample a variety of Latino foods including posole, mole, rice, beans, pico de gallo (Wirth’s mother’s recipe using cactus), corn tortillas, and arroz con leche (a sweet treat with rice and milk).
“These are all traditional Day of the Dead foods,” Wirth said.
Seven dozen tamales will be raffled off during the event.
Music will be provided by a mariachi band from Pasco, and many will be dressed in traditional attire — colorful dresses for the girls, elaborate cowboy outfits for the boys.
A large part of Dia de los Muertos is an ofrenda, which is an altar honoring the deceased with photos, mementos, flowers, and food. The classroom ofrendas created at South Baker will be on display in the hallway, and everyone is welcome to add items to a large community ofrenda to be built during the celebration.
Photo journals featuring portraits and stories of local Latino families will also be on display in the commons. This project was sponsored by the Ford Family Foundation.
Wirth said the event will wrap up around 8:30 or 9 p.m.
Creating a Tradition
This is the fourth year that South Baker sixth-graders celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month. It was a project orchestrated by Wirth and former sixth-grade teacher Mandie Rose.
It is a chance, Wirth said, for children to learn about another culture while encouraging Latino students to celebrate their own history.
“Our own Latino children are forgetting their heritage,” Wirth said. “I want them to be proud of it and to understand where they come from.”
Each Thursday in October featured an assembly for the sixth-grade classes at SBI.
At the first, local youth presented a mock Quinceanera, which celebrates a girl’s 15th birthday to honor the transition from girlhood to womanhood.
Students from the advanced art class at Baker High School presented Hispanic-themed art on Oct. 10. These creations will be on display during the Dia de los Muertos celebration.
On Oct. 17, Wirth built an ofrenda and explained the tradition. She added photographs of her mother and father, along with items special to them.
“Think of things your parents love,” she said. “These are things important to them. Not you — them.”
Ofrendas also include flowers (marigolds are the tradition), food, water, and a source of light.
“We always have light on the ofrenda. My mom and dad’s never goes out,” she said.
When she was young, she told the students, her family dedicated an entire room to the family ofrenda.
“When I had a rough day, I’d sleep in there,” she said. “I could talk to my grandma, my aunts, my uncles.”
While there can be elements of sadness, Dia de los Muertos is more of a happy time to remember loved ones.
“It’s so fulfilling to be reminded of where you come from, to cherish and honor it,” she said. “My culture is so deep and rich — I’m glad we haven’t lost it completely.”
The Oct. 24 assembly featured traditional dress and the history behind the garments.
For the final assembly on Oct. 31, Latino students will have their faces painted for Dia de los Muertos. This tradition features stark white faces made to look like a skeleton and accented with bright colors. The sixth-graders will also receive a copy of the book “Family Pictures,” purchased with a grant from Oregon Humanities.
The Hispanic heritage events were also funded by a grant from the Reser Foundation.