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Every October for the past 10 years, Tracy Dordell, a teacher at New Highland Academy Elementary, works on a unique art project with her students. 

Each student creates a niche box to commemorate a loved one who has passed away, and the students march in a procession to the 81st Avenue Library where they display their artwork. The idea, Dordell said, came from the Chapel of Memories, the columbarium, and mausoleum owned by Chapel of the Chimes on Piedmont Avenue. In the Chapel of Memories, families can store funerary urns, and the public can roam through the space. 

“Experiencing loss is hard and in the United States is not dealt with,” Dordell said. “This project is such a healthy way for people to deal with loss and their families. And it’s such a positive way for us to remember our ancestors and connect with the diversity in our school community.” 

Fourth-grader Alexis Morales Lovato wanted to honor his uncle, who passed away in a car crash. “I felt happy that I shared my feelings with classmates,” he said during the procession today. 

Latin American countries like Mexico and Brazil, and other nations like the Philippines, have similar holidays and rituals for honoring departed loved ones. For Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, families set up altars for their loved ones on Nov. 1. These ofrendas include their loved ones’ favorite foods, bread, water, bouquets made of the marigold flower, and religious statues. 

For some of the immigrant children in her class, creating these niche boxes is a way to reconnect with their ancestors and culture. In some cases, the children may have never met a loved one they’re honoring because they lived in other countries where their families are from. 

Students from New Highland Academy walk with handmade niche boxes from the school to 81st Avenue Oakland Public Library. Credit: Amir Aziz

Each box is a unique representation of the person that they are honoring. All the boxes are painted in vibrant colors and contain a photo, flowers, miniature clay versions of their loved one’s favorite foods.

“Some of the flowers that go in boxes, the kids make. Others I thrift along with other supplies that I collect through the year,” said Dordell. The students also make sugar skull paper masks adorned with flowers and hand-painted t-shirts.

Once all of the students complete their boxes, Dordell organizes a procession from the school to the 81st Avenue Oakland Public Library where the creations are displayed for the community to see. 

A motorcade with two Oakland police officers accompanies the procession every year from the school to the library and back. Two volunteers from the 81st Avenue Library wearing safety vests ride along on bicycles pulling a mini-portable library and playing music. 

Dordell said that putting together this project, which the class starts working on the month before, is a collaborative effort with other teachers who contribute their time and supplies to make it happen. 

After doing online schooling for over a year during a deadly pandemic, the class was excited to work on a project that didn’t require them to be in front of a computer, and one that could help them connect with recently departed loved ones.

Lovato, the fourth-grader, said, “I was really excited to do this because it is a way for my uncle to come down from heaven.”

Correction: the New Highland Academy class featured in this story is a 4th grade class, not 3rd grade.

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.