Chatham's Communities in Schools celebrates Day of the Dead


SILER CITY — Inside Communities In Schools’ downtown office, a richly decorated skull smiles up at you from the first level of a three-step altar in front of the office’s window.

Made from sugar, the skull sports colorful designs drawn in icing and markers; shimmering golden paper fills its eye sockets. A row of tiny flowers — orange, blue, yellow and pink — curve around its forehead; green, orange and purple beads of icing trace its chin. Both frame two parts of one message: “Toda tu familia te extraña (Your entire family misses you).”

“My brother passed three years ago, and so this (the skull) is in his honor,” said CIS’ Maria Soto, who built the altar. She’s the organization’s Family Advocate. “... You make a sugar skull and put the name of your loved one (on it) because it’s to celebrate life, you know, not death. We celebrate when they were alive.”

It’s one of many sugar skulls placed around the altar. Some are large. Others might fit in your palm. Surrounded by prayer candles and paper marigolds, some aren’t made out of sugar but plastic or even marshmallows. Each represents a crucial piece — and carries a powerful message — when it comes to celebrating Day of the Dead, a two-day Mexican holiday in which families and communities celebrate and welcome back the souls of their deceased loved ones.

Families and communities remember children on Nov. 1 and adults on Nov. 2.

“In Mexico in general, there are parades and big altars, a lot of flowers,” Soto said. “People go to the cemetery, bring mariachis and food and eat there, visit their loved ones — because that’s the belief, that they come to visit you. You know, like the (Disney) movie, ‘Coco,’ it’s about the tradition. There are some things that are not exactly right (in the movie), but it’s pretty close to the traditions of the altar.”

As part of the tradition, families across Mexico and parts of Latin America construct altars with items rich in symbolic meaning. While sugar skulls are representations of deceased loved ones, an arch often fixed above the altar represents the passage between life and death. Fire (in candles) symbolizes love for deceased relatives and also provides their souls guiding lights to return. The fragrance of bright yellow or orange marigolds, called cempazuchitl in Nahuatl or flores de muerto in Spanish, has been said to attract souls to the altars.

“You should put food in the altar, you know, like bread or tamales, atole, fruit, whatever your loved one loved the most, because the belief is that they come visit you and that you have their favorite dish,” Soto said. “And sometimes people put like whiskey or you know, like cigars or cigarettes or whatever (if) the people, they were always smoking — just the way that you remember them.”

At CIS, celebrating Day of the Dead has become something of an office tradition. This year’s celebration marks the fifth time the nonprofit has observed the holiday — but they hadn’t always celebrated the occasion inside their office. Before the pandemic, Soto said, she used to set up the altar just a few doors down in Peppercorn, which has since closed.

“It was a great space,” she said, “so we were able to put a big altar and you know, a little bit more of the traditional way.”

This year’s celebration also marks the first time CIS has celebrated Day of the Dead together since 2019. Staff considered trying to reserve space in the N.C. Arts Incubator, across the street, for the altar, but as COVID-19 cases rose, they ultimately decided it wasn’t yet safe to hold a celebration.

With vaccines widely available and cases in Chatham trending down, this year’s a bit of a different story.

“Not to lose the tradition, I told Tych [Cowdin, CIS’ executive director], I was like, ‘How about if I just do something here?’” Soto said, laughing. “ ... At least a little altar so that we don’t lose this tradition.”

Staff, plus the families and students they work with, make all the altar decorations by hand, especially the sugar skulls and flowers. Many on display this year, Soto said, had originally been made by youth and families who’d been in CIS’ program about three years ago.

“Each one of those sugar skulls was made by a kid, each one of them, so there are some that look pretty good. There are others that look … ,” Soto trailed off, laughing. “I think the youngest kid that participated was like 6 or 7 years old, so it’s their creation, but ... each one of them is different, unique, because it’s created by the kid or the parent. It was a family activity.”

After making the altar, CIS holds a celebration around it.

“We invite friends and family to bring pictures of their loved ones,” she said, adding that this year, the celebration would be limited to staff.

At the top of this year’s altar sits a photo of Bryan Vilchis, a Northwood junior who died in a car crash on Oct. 23.

“He was part of the family advocacy program about four years ago,” Soto recalled. “So I knew him very well, the family, his mom, and so that’s why we’re doing this in his honor. Every year, unfortunately, there’s somebody close to us that loses their loved one and so we dedicate each year to that person.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at