BECA student Gaby Sanchez honored in vigil – family concerned about respecting Dia de los Muertos traditions

After months of her family trying to host a vigil on SF State’s campus, a Dia de los Muertos celebration of life will be held on Friday, Nov. 3 in the Richard Oakes multicultural Center for Gabriela Sanchez, a student who died in a car accident this past summer. However, Sanchez’s family is concerned that their Dia de los Muertos traditions may not be respected due to the school not allowing them to assist in the organizing of the event.

Sanchez was born in Tepalcatepec, Michoacan, Mexico. She was 23-years-old when she died on July 19, 2017 in a car accident. She was on her way to a 4 a.m. opening shift at Starbucks when her sedan collided with a semi-truck, causing her vehicle to burst into flames.

Sanchez had transferred from De Anza College to SF State and was majoring in broadcasting and electronic communication arts (BECA) with a minor in communications. She commuted to school almost daily from her family home in Dos Palos, California. She was a DACA recipient and would have graduated in spring of 2018. She would have been the first in her family to attend college and earn a Bachelor’s degree.

Sanchez is remembered by friends and family as being a dedicated student and passionate activist. She was featured in the documentary film Undocumented & Unafraid, which was released in December of 2016. Sanchez spoke openly in the film about her aspirations to work in politics as a journalist and her desire to help her community, especially other undocumented immigrants.

Upon news of her death, Sanchez’s mother, Mireya Espinoza, asked one of Gabriela’s closest friends, Gardenia Zuniga, to notify Gabriela’s friends and classmates as well as SF State administration of her passing on behalf of the family.

“The Dream coordinator for SF State, Norma Salcedo emailed me the next day after Gaby’s death and immediately assisted me with the proper contact info and procedure for Gaby’s student death protocol,” wrote Zuniga in an open letter to the school. “I was relieved that she gave me a phone call and offered to do an on campus vigil in honor of Gabriela, but only after the Dean of Students contacted me. However, she never did.”

According to Zuniga, she reached out to Dr. Mary Ann Beagley, the interim dean of students, on behalf of Sanchez’s mother through phone and email multiple times over the course of two months and received no response. According to SF Student Death Support Services policy, “the Dean of Students will send a letter of condolence on behalf of the University community and will provide information regarding support offered and available to them by the University” in addition to coordinating a vigil at the request of the family. The Xpress reached out to SF State administration for comment to no avail.

While the SF State administration hesitated to respond or organize a vigil for Sanchez, De Anza College hosted a memorial within three weeks of her death. Frustrated, Zuniga wrote an open letter to the school in September that was published by El Tecolote, a news organization that Sanchez had formerly contributed to.

Zuniga says that it wasn’t until after she wrote the open letter that she was contacted by Manuel Alejandro Pérez, Interim Assistant Vice President for Equity & Community Inclusion. Pérez then issued an apology to Sanchez’s mother and began organizing the vigil.

Since the vigil was not held earlier in the year when first requested, Sanchez’s family and friends asked that the vigil be held according to their Dia de los Muertos customs. Despite Sanchez’s family offering to provide customary items like sugar skulls, marigolds and pan de muerto, Pérez told Zuniga that the school would take care of everything.

“All we know for sure is that we will have a space for an hour and a half and there will be an altar with candles,” said Zuniga. “Other than that, we have no idea.”

Although there are a few common elements of Dia de los Muertos like sugar skulls and brightly colored flowers, the holiday is very intimate for those who celebrate it. Each family has their own traditions, and a major component of the holiday is personalization for individuals who have passed away. No two Dia de los Muertos altars are the same – each one is customized with items that represent the honored individual. An altar might be decorated with the deceased’s favorite flowers, favorite foods, trinkets or pictures of them doing something they enjoyed while living.

“I wanted to bring the California state flower [for the altar] because she loved those,” said Zuniga. “Her mom planted them all around the crash site. She also loved glitter, so I’m bringing a small bottle to put on the altar.”

Food, which is another traditional component of Dia de los Muertos, is not expected at the vigil, although Sanchez’s family offered to bring in dishes.

“There are certain things that we have to have,” said Zuniga. “The school said they would provide cookies and refreshments – we need Day of the Dead bread, not cookies.”

Pérez also upset Sanchez’s mother when he asked if students could paint their faces like skulls for the vigil. According to Zuniga, it is customary to only paint your face during the holiday if someone close to you has passed away. A classmate, acquaintance or stranger doing so during the vigil would be considered disrespectful.

“I hope for Gaby’s sake they do this right and honor her properly,” said Zuniga. “But right now we’re not hopeful. We’ll just have to see what happens on Friday.”

The vigil will be held in the Richard Oakes Multicultural Center, located in the Cesar Chavez Student Center; from 2p.m. to 3:30p.m. on Nov. 3. Participants are encouraged to bring mementos of remembrance for Sanchez and to wear black clothes with colorful accessories, as is customary for Dia de Los Muertos.

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