Friends and family of SF State BECA student Gabriela Sanchez gathered in remembrance on Friday, Nov. 3 in the Richard Oakes Multicultural center at a Dia de los Muertos celebration of life.
Sanchez died in a car accident this past summer. She was 23 years old.
Sanchez was honored in the celebration with a Dia de los Muertos altar, a poetry reading and a dance performance, as well as a moment of silence. Friends, family, classmates and professors exchanged memories of Sanchez and spoke of her positive attitude, passion for activism and her dedication to school.
The event was organized by Manuel Alejandro Pérez, Interim assistant vice president for equity & community inclusion, with assistance from Gardenia Zuniga, one of Sanchez’s closest friends. The celebration came after Sanchez’s family struggled for months with the SF State administration to plan an on-campus vigil.
Zuniga had notified the school of Sanchez’s death in July but had received no response from the administration until September, after she wrote an open letter to the university regarding student death protocol. Pérez stated that he became informed of the situation on Sept. 13 – his first day as part of the Equity & Community Inclusion Team.
Pérez apologized to Sanchez’s family for the University’s lack of timely action and began working to plan the vigil.
“I just hope that now, after Gabriela, no other family has to go through this,” said Mireya Espinoza, Sanchez’s mother. “I hope that now when a student dies the school will say ‘we are sorry for your loss’ and that the family doesn’t have to ask for their child to be remembered.”
“The university acknowledges that this was an oversight on behalf of the institution,” said Pérez. “We have committed going forward, from the moment that this happened, that this [oversight] needs to stop immediately. This should never happen again.”
Laura Espinoza, Sanchez’s cousin, explained that although it took a while for the SF State administration to give condolences and to plan the vigil she and the family hold no animosity toward the university.
Despite being initially upset by the university’s lack of action, Mireya Espinoza stated after the vigil that she was happy that her daughter was recognized by the SF State community and that the university allowed her to bring Sanchez’s ashes to the vigil.
“This was her second home, this was her dream,” said Laura Espinoza. “She was jumping with happiness when she got accepted. She was so excited to go here.”
Sanchez’s family was also concerned that their Dia de los Muertos traditions were not going to be respected because they had little input in planning the event. However, they were relieved that the celebration honored Sanchez according to their customs.
The room was decorated with traditional Mexican tissue paper flowers in bright colors, butterflies (a symbol of immigrant rights), photos of Sanchez and the Mexican flag. Additionally, friends brought sugar skulls, flowers, candles, comic books and other mementos to place on and around the altar for Sanchez.
“I am happy that my daughter was remembered by all of the people who came,” said Mireya Espinoza. “It was good because all of this was for her.”
“The event was bright and colorful just like Gaby,” said Zuniga. “I think it is what she would have wanted.”
Sanchez was an active member of the SF State community and was involved in the comic club and Improving Dreams, Equity, Access and Success (I.D.E.A.S), an organization that advocates for undocumented students. In addition to recognition of Sanchez’s activism and academic achievements, SF State awarded Sanchez, who would have graduated in spring 2018, a posthumous degree in broadcasting and electronic communication arts (BECA).
“I am happy today because she got what she worked hard for. She achieved her goal,” said Laura Espinoza. “She got what she really wanted – her bachelor’s degree.”
“I am happy that she [Sanchez’s ashes] was here when I received the diploma,” said Mireya Espinoza. “I am happy that she could come to campus one last time. She loved this school.”