High school celebration brings school, community together
The idea began simply. A former East View High School Spanish teacher wanted to make learning about a different language and culture fun for her students. She planned an after school celebration to coincide with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Dia de los Muertos is a Hispanic holiday, observed primarily in Mexico, which focuses on remembering friends and family who have died. Traditionally, it is not a time of mourning but a time of celebration. Mrs. Ornelas also made it a time to honor education.
She offered extra credit to her students and encouraged them to be creative, to write a poem, to make a mask or an ofrenda (“offering”), a memorial display of objects placed on an altar to help people honor departed friends and family. For the subjects of their ofrendas, the students were told to choose someone they respected. “It could be a pop star, an athlete, of course, a relative, anyone they wanted,” says East View assistant principal Dan Garza. “They put their pride into them.” Many memorialized relatives, but one student created an altar for Elvis Presley. “Some of them were people you never thought kids would connect with, but they did.”
The event is held in the East View High School cafeteria, where the altars and masks are displayed. Students dance or sing. Some share poems they have written. At the first celebration, Mrs. Ornelas sang a song to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” With the help of her students, Mrs. Ornelas had rewritten the song’s lyrics to be educational. Mr. Garza adds, “She also talked [to the students] about how to study and what to study, and not to let anyone distract them from their studies.”
What began as a small, intimate event five years ago has grown beyond expectations and spun off its own organization, La Familia East View, which Mr. Garza now heads. “We want [the community] to feel like they’re part of our East View family,” says Mr. Garza, “so when we were thinking of a name for our organization, La Familia East View came to mind and just stuck.” They’re still trying to figure out the name of their signature event, however. “La Familia Dia de los Muertos Hispanic Heritage Celebration is kind of long!”
Regardless of what the event is called, the word is out. Last year 400 people—students and their families—attended. “It was the biggest one we’ve ever had,” Mr. Garza raves. “We had the most attendance, the most speakers, the most music.” Last year’s program featured live music and Stony Point High School’s mariachi band. Families brought a covered dish to share, and Georgetown High School teachers Ramiro Luna and Jesse Howell brought GHS students to help serve the attendees. With the growth of the program, La Familia East View has also connected with local restaurants willing to donate food. “We always have a bunch of great food,” Mr. Garza says. He adds that the Georgetown Health Foundation “has provided tremendous support.”
The program is always held in Spanish. Initially, this was a way for students of the Spanish language to practice their skills, but an unexpected yet wonderful outcome of East View’s Day of the Dead celebration was the inclusion of parents whose primary language is Spanish. “These parents care,” Mr. Garza states, “but some of them haven’t been as involved as we’d like them to be or as they’d like to be. They want to help. These parents also want to receive the same quality of service as anyone else, so it’s important for them to get out there and be involved with the kids, but also to get out there with other parents and to be a part of the school.”
Although the food and entertainment may be what gets the students and their families through the door, says Mr. Garza, “once they’re there, we want to take the opportunity to educate them. We try not to bore people.”
The program mixes speakers and entertainment. At past events, East View teachers presented information about the importance of GPA, class rank, FAFSA, applying to colleges, and applying for scholarships. Last year representatives from College Board, Upward Bound, College Forward, National Hispanic Institute, Lone Star Circle of Care, and El Amistad addressed the audience. Each speaker is allotted 10 to 15 minutes and may set up a booth in the cafeteria. “After the program, if people want more information, they can go over and talk to them.”
La Familia East View holds other meetings throughout the school year that are offshoots of Dia de los Muertos. “We’ve had small discussion groups where . . . we got feedback from [parents] about what they wanted to be informed about. We’re filling that demand,” Mr. Garza says. Eventually, they would like to add other meetings and events. “Hopefully, we can have a spring event that will be as big as the fall’s.”
The possibilities are unlimited. “Success breeds success” is one of East View’s mottos. In just a few years, La Familia East View has proved it true.
La Familia East View 2014
This year’s festival will take place Wednesday, October 29, from 6-8 p.m.