Una Ofrenda: Honoring the stories that shape us

A few weeks ago, I went home to celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with my family. Each year, in preparation for the celebration, I help my family put together an ofrenda, or altar, to honor those who have passed. My earliest memories of this holiday are filled with joy, crafts, and invaluable time spent with loved ones. I remember carefully bringing home my small sugar skull that I would decorate at a community gathering, then proudly placing it on the altar at home. My parents would gather photos of loved ones who had passed and carefully arrange them. We would then add candles, sage, a molcajete, and items that reminded us of what brings us togethermuch of which was food-related. Though officially centered on loss, this was not an overly sad time, but more of a special tradition that brought us together and let us take time for meaningful reflection on the lives and stories of those who have passed—and take time for one another.

As the years pass, the altars become fuller, with younger family members contributing more. The altar always stands for a while after November 1, prominent and visible to anyone who visits our home. This is done so that we can continue to share the stories of our loved ones with family and friends and invite friends and neighbors to share their own stories as well. As a kid, I was always eager to share memories of my pets who had passed away—and I felt a sense of awe and admiration when my family would tell stories about the cherished relatives who I was never able to meet. This brought me closer to my own family and its history. I was able to connect across generations with those who held a special place in the hearts of my family; those who shaped the souls and minds of my family, who in turn did the same for me.

It was through these stories that I learned about the moves and decisions my family made that allowed a safe and privileged life for my brother and me. Around that ofrenda, I learned how my mother was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and how my aunt went to work in the factories there, where so many young women went missing. I learned the story of how my father was literally born in a field in the Salinas Valley, and how agricultural work sustained his family. I stepped into these stories, imagining what the experiences must have been like, feeling grateful for everything that I have in life. Growing up, I heard these stories and absorbed their lessons, whether or not I realized it at the time.

The remembrance of those who have passed often extends beyond relatives to include those in our communities. A pink cross on my altar symbolizes the gender-based and state violence that women of the Ciudad Juarez region faced—that which my mom and aunt were lucky enough to be taken away from. A United Farm Workers of America bandana symbolizes solidarity with those whose lives were spent laboring in the fields of the Salinas Valley, where my father was born—those who may not have shared blood with him, but shared experiences and similar dreams.

What I never fully realized growing up, but is so clear to me now, is that sharing stories was a way for my family to express the values that we hold. Those stories that brought tears, or the recollections that brought warm laughs around the room, or those that elicited a sad smile from my older relatives—these all could tell you a lot about who we are and what we value. They let us reaffirm our values without having to name them.

As we at the Foundation begin to utilize the power of storytelling in our work, I find myself reflecting on Dia de los Muertos at home. In our work, storytelling can be a potent tool. It enables us to share the importance of our grantmaking through the eyes of those we aim to serve—it lets us communicate not just the how, but the why behind our efforts.

This October, for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I was proud to participate in our End the Silence campaign, which highlighted the personal stories and reflections of both survivors of domestic violence and those who are working every day to end it. These immensely powerful stories show the human side of domestic violence. They can be inspiring, sad, joyous, uplifting, unsettling, and astonishing—but they are universally moving. I encourage you to browse the gallery of stories to see, read, and find meaning in the words of those who have shared.

Beyond simply informing us about facts or statistics, these stories bring the importance of our work to life. They make us feel connected with others on a deep and personal level. When we hear someone’s story, we feel we know her a little bit better. Just like the feeling of being at home with my family, decorating the ofrenda, these stories remind me that we’re all connected—all in this together—and we are stronger, safer, and better for it.