RAND, Pardee RAND Celebrate Día de los Muertos with Community Ofrenda

Rhianna Rogers, Jessica Arana, Marielena Lara, Chandra Garber, Eduardo Lara, Griselda de la Torre, Ruth Alba, and Sarah Ochoa met on October 19 to decorate the ofrenda.

November 2, 2021

To commemorate Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, RAND’s Latinx y Más employee resource group invited staff and students to contribute to an inaugural community ofrenda — an altar or offering to honor the departed — that they built in the Santa Monica office.

Jessica Arana, a senior designer and visual artist inspired by her indigenous and Mexican heritage, curated the festivities. She organized an in-person gathering to contribute to the altar, developed an online space to reflect with colleagues and include those outside of Santa Monica, shared learning resources, and hosted a virtual gathering to reflect together. She said she had high hopes for the ofrenda, both personally and communally, when she started preparations in September. “Together, we hope to remember our ancestors and share — or learn — traditions as a community.”

Día de los Muertos originated in Mexico around 3,000 years ago, but it has expanded to and been embraced by many Latinx communities in the United States. For many people, their only associations with the holiday are calaveras catrinas — colorfully painted skulls — and the 2017 film Coco.

Marielena Lara, a senior physician policy researcher whose family is from Puerto Rico, said the holiday may be new to her but is meaningful nonetheless. “I first heard about the tradition when I helped my daughter’s second grade Spanish immersion classmates with colorful Catrina crafts,” she said of the decorated skulls that are associated with the holiday. “Every year I find myself sharing more pictures and stories about my loved ones that have passed.”

For Griselda de la Torre, an executive administrative assistant and the granddaughter of immigrants, the holiday was also relatively new to her. “I did not learn about Día de los Muertos until I enrolled my sons in a Spanish language immersion school, where they taught them more about my own culture than the country I was born in ever had!” she said.

“It is uplifting to have a space at work where we can sit with these reflections and honor those lives.”

—Cynthia Gonzalez

De la Torre added, “I am proud of what RAND has initiated with their diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda. To me, this is huge and a big step forward in recognizing everyone, even our dearly departed!”

Latinx y Más cochair Ruth Alba, also an executive administrative assistant, echoed her appreciation. “I am grateful to RAND for allowing the RAND community a space to celebrate this tradition and hope that once COVID restrictions are lifted, we are able to invite our friends and family to see this new RAND addition to cultural diversity,” she said.

For Alba, Día de los Muertos is “a time to pause, reflect, and celebrate our loved ones who have passed on, and honor the wisdom and warmth of our elders, those we have known and those we never knew, those who are here and those who have passed but remain with us. It’s also a time of joining with others in a community celebration of shared humanity regardless of differences, as death knows no ethnic or racial, class, or gender boundaries.” she said.

Latinx y Más invited employees in Santa Monica — and across RAND — to bring or submit copies of photographs, drawings, poetry, or other small mementos that represent someone, “or even a group or cause they would like represented and be remembered,” Arana said.

Several members and supporters of the ERG met to decorate the ofrenda on October 19, and contributions were welcome throughout the rest of the month.

Survey coordinator Eduardo Lara said he was grateful for the “outlet to connect with my ancestors and lineage. The tradition is a reminder of our ability to reconnect with our loved ones and honor our spiritual connection with our ancestors, even if they are not physically present.”

The director of Pardee RAND’s Community-Partnered Policy and Action stream, Cynthia Gonzalez, was pleased to be able to participate. “There is no time like the present where this tradition is so necessary as we attempt to recover from the massive loss that COVID-19 has brought to our society,” she said. “It is uplifting to have a space at work where we can sit with these reflections and honor those lives.”

Arana agreed. “As an artist, I am honored to bring the community altar tradition to RAND,” she said. “After the last 18 months, it was wonderful to see everyone’s personal contributions enrich the altar and their loved ones represented as a collective form of healing.”

The altar will be on display and tended to until the end of this week.

—Monica Hertzman

The ofrenda started out simple and small

Cynthia Gonzalez added a photo of her late colleague, Pardee RAND professor Martin Iguchi

Community members contributed arts and crafts, like these handmade dolls, to decorate the ofrenda

Nonperishable food and flowers were also added as offerings

Jessica Arana adds cempasúchil (marigold) flowers to the ofrenda. Also called the Flor de Muerto, they are the main flowers used to decorate the altars.

Cynthia Gonzalez with the ofrenda