Day of the Dead Celebration Helps Foster Youth Remember Their Roots

Growing up as a small child in a small town in the Mexican state of Morelos, Angel Lee Woolsey remembers the flurry of activity that would mark the annual celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.

At markets, artisans would create elaborate cut-out banners, papel picados, bakers sold pan de muerto, a special eroliday pastry, and flower merchants hawked bundles of the wild-grown Zenpasuchitl flower, a type of marigold that is associated with the day.

Angel Lee Woolsey and her son made sugar skulls for Photo: Jeremy Loudenback
Angel Lee Woolsey and son made sugar skulls for the Noche de Altares celebration in Santa Ana, Calif.

At home, his family would create an altar to remember departed relatives. Dating back to pre-Colombian times, Dia de Los Muertos is traditionally believed to be the time when the dead are allowed to return home to visit their loved ones. Altars are made in their honor, often including the deceased’s favorite food or a drink, candles and even a chair in case they are tired after a long trip home.

“Everybody believed the same thing so it was magical – it almost felt real,” Woolsey recalled.

Best of all, Woolsey remembers, many families would lay a carpet of marigold petals on the ground that could stretch 100 feet from the street into the room at home with the altar.

But life changed for Woolsey when he moved to the U.S. at age 8 with his family. Not too long after, he entered Orange County’s foster care system after being abused by family members.

As he bounced around foster homes and institutions, Woolsey felt cut off from a rich cultural heritage. And talking about his time in foster care with his grandmother was often difficult, an experience that was both literally and figuratively hard to talk about.

Woolsey is now part of a group of current and former foster youth and supporters in Orange County who are using the increasingly popular holiday to focus on the experiences of children in the foster care system.

For the fourth year in a row, Woolsey and Jenny Vinopal, who helps organize foster youth across the state with the California Youth Connection, are building an altar dedicated to children who have experienced child abuse and neglect. On Saturday, Nov. 5, they will display the altar in Santa Ana, Calif., a predominately Latino city about an hour south of Los Angeles, as part of the city’s Noche de Altares celebration.

This year’s altar is organized around the different ideas of family. The altar will include a three-dimensional family tree, with several spreading branches. The more than 10,000 visitors to the event in Santa Ana will be invited to stop and write about what family means to them, as well as the anecdotes about the importance of nontraditional family ties.

In addition to decorative sugar skulls, the altar will also include artwork from California Youth Connection members from across the state. California Youth Connection is an organization that represents youth in foster care and creates youth-led opportunities for advocacy.

“Our members wanted to share their experiences of loss, and what foster care really represents is a lot of loss,” Vinopal said.

An alter in progress for the Noche de Altares celebration in Santa Ana, Calif. Photo: Jeremy Loudenback
An alter in progress for the Noche de Altares celebration in Santa Ana, Calif.

This year artwork from youth currently in care includes a portrait of three women in etched Harlequin style by a youth living in a group home in Los Angeles County, created to represent three relationships she misses. Another youth drew a picture of her sister, who was murdered by her parents as a young girl. In years past, youth have also included stories and poetry that have helped them get through tough times.

In Orange County, there are 2,230 youth currently placed in out-of-home care. About 67 percent are Latino, 24 percent are white, 5 percent black and 4 percent Asian.

Woolsey hopes that having an altar at the Dia de Los Muertos celebration will help create more conversations about foster care in Orange County’s Latino community.

“This is the perfect platform to talk about these issues with our community,” Woolsey said. “Here in the U.S., you just don’t talk about it. It’s taboo. It’s shameful that you got taken from your family.”

Woolsey said some family members were told that he had been sent to a boarding school after he was removed from home.

According to Woolsey, foster care is often literally hard to talk about.

“There’s not really a [Spanish] word for foster care that translates correctly or has the same exact meaning,” he said.

Sometimes, he said, some people use the term casa hogar, which confusingly means “house home,” or casa de crianza, which means “house to raise children.” But neither accurately portray the system involved to protect children who are dealing with traumatic experiences of abuse and neglect.

“When I called Mexico and tried to talk about it with my family, they couldn’t understand it, which was frustrating,” Woolsey said.

When members of the community see the altar dedicated to children in foster care, it prompts a lot of questions.

“We explain about foster care and it creates that dialogue,” he said. “That person that we talk with might go home and mention it to someone. Even if they don’t, they might remember foster care.”

In October, a group of former foster youth, families and supporters gathered at Vinopal’s Irvine house to start working on the altar.

As they passed around glitter, paint and glue, Woolsey traded stories with Anna Ramirez and Sarai Sandoval* about their time in Orange County’s foster care system.

All three spent time in Orangewood Children and Family Center, a facility in the city of Orange that has long served as a an emergency shelter for youth in care. They reminisced about the legendarily poor quality of food served there. Ramirez remembered the creative ways girls that stayed there would use cinnamon candy to fashion lip stick. Or the night a group of girls poured liquid soap over the floors of their ward to foil a particularly malicious group of staff members.

They chuckled at the sometimes-baffling attempts by some well-meaning foster parents to make enchiladas and dishes that hardly resembled what they had grown up eating.

Woolsey remembered the fear he felt entering the foster care system and struggling to maintain his culture.

“When I was placed into different homes and then with my adoptive mother Robin being Caucasian, I felt like I was going to become a different person,” Woolsey said.

“But with my adoptive mom Robin being so encouraging of it, it really goes to show what a supportive foster family can do for a youth.”

Now, Woolsey is passing on the Day of the Dead traditions to his 3-year-old son, Emilio. They took time to paint a sugar skull together.

“For me, it was really important to connect back to what I experienced as a child,” he said. “As a parent, being able to show my child these things I did as a kid, and him growing up with these traditions and expecting them to happen is amazing.”

The Noche de Altares takes place near the corner of 4th and Broadway in Santa Ana tomorrow from 1:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

*Name has been changed.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 353 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at