As a mother of three daughters, ages 10 to 15, for many years Monica Cañas has been an active volunteer in Larkspur-Corte Madera School District’s Cove Elementary School and Hall Middle School in Marin County. Her sustained efforts led to her being appointed to serve on the school board in 2018. In addition to those official duties, Monica continues to be an active volunteer, building bridges between families that are learning English and the leadership at the school and district.

Monica’s family is from Mexico, and the Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos) is an important occasion to honor ancestors and loved ones who have passed. While many schools in other parts of Marin have activities to celebrate Día de los Muertos, the Cove School did not have any school-wide practice.  Read on to find out how Monica and some energetic parents partnered with an enthusiastic principal and counselor to create a new tradition in the midst of COVID restrictions.

Monica Cañas, Larkspur-Corte Madera School District Trustee

For the last several years, I have hosted a sugar skull decorating activity during my daughter’s classroom Halloween parties, as a way to share our family’s Día de Los Muertos celebration with others. With students unable to meet in person, I wanted to continue the tradition this year in a COVID-adapted way.

After reaching out to the Cove School’s art teacher about creating a themed project for students, I bumped into Jazmin Guzman in the parking lot. She is my neighbor and a parent of English-learner students in the district. When I shared how bummed I was that I couldn’t host the sugar skull party, she brought up the idea of having a drive-by altar at the school. After enlisting the help of another parent volunteer, Glenda Medrano, we pitched the idea to principal Michelle Walker and counselor Scarlett Headley. They loved it!

Due to COVID, they suggested a poster version of an altar and immediately provided support, including setting up a Google Drive folder for Cove students to share their photos and scheduling an online assembly to celebrate with students. With help from the school’s custodian, Señor Nestor, Jazmin and Glenda put up the poster and traditional, colorful “papel picado” along the sides. The following day, I showed up at the site with the first bundle of photos and began taping them to the poster. Over the next several days we continued adding photos, calaveras (skulls), paper chains and colorful flowers.

To show the faces of the people behind the production and to further explain the significance of the altar, counselor Headley suggested creating a video. Jazmin, Glenda and I shared the origins of the tradition, the significance of the offerings and how each of our cultures celebrate differently in Guatemala, Mexico and the United States.

We presented the video during the school’s weekly Friday assembly. We shared photos of the altar and engaged students by asking them to name a loved one who has passed away, along with something that they would like to offer them. Some students said things like, “my hamster Coco—I would offer him his favorite treat” and “my grandpapa—I would read him his favorite book.”

It was a heartwarming experience that allowed us to see and feel the love and joy on everyone’s face. It was also a special surprise to see principal Walker and counselor Headley show up to the assembly with their faces painted as skulls, and flowers in their hair to portray “La Catrina,” the goddess of death in Aztec culture. Jazmin, Glenda and I were very excited to see them honor the tradition with that gesture and to do it in such a respectful manner.

While students and families are eager for a time when they can gather again in person, the school’s Día de los Muertos assembly was a way to build on the idea of celebrating cultural diversity at the school, creating a climate of inclusivity, teaching others about the diverse cultures and traditions in the district and engaging parents that are typically not engaged. It also served as a way to build community in a time when we cannot physically be together.

The celebration was beautiful and created a sense of warmth, joy and togetherness, which is what all communities need right now.

We received such a great outpouring of gratitude from families and school staff about what we did and what it taught them. Some teachers took their students on an outdoor walk to visit the altar and talk about the significance behind the movie Coco. They were very happy and thankful for something that has never been done before in LCMSD. The Cove School has officially declared Día de Los Muertos an annual tradition!

This event paved the way for other cultures to be celebrated, as well at Cove Elementary. The assembly following ours celebrated the Diwali tradition, which was presented by an Arab family in our community, and that was followed by a presentation about the Hanukkah tradition. The plan is to eventually spread these traditional and cultural celebrations to other schools in our district.