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Day of the Dead celebrations bring families together to remember those they lost

An altar stands among several others as part of a Lansing Day of the Dead celebration at One Love Global Inc. on the city's southside.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
An altar stands among several others as part of a Lansing Day of the Dead celebration at One Love Global Inc. on the city's southside.

Day of the Dead dates back a millennium to Indigenous people in Latin America. While the tradition has evolved to incorporate elements from Catholicism — the focus remains: to honor and commune with our loved ones who are no longer with us.  

The holiday has brought the children of one Lansing woman together after decades apart.

Growing up, Phillip and Josephine Herrera didn’t know they had four older siblings. At some point, Phillip's brothers and sisters were taken from his mother, Magdalena Cortez, and put into the foster care system.

“Two siblings went to one home and one went to another home. And at one point two of them were in the same foster care, but they were eventually split up," Phillip Herrera said.

A photo of Magdalena Cortez. The photo is displayed on her altar for Day of The Dead.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
A photo of Magdalena Cortez is displayed on her altar for Day of The Dead.

It wasn’t until Phillip was in high school that his mom informed him about his other siblings. He then began the process of looking for his brothers and sisters.

Ultimately, it was his sister Josephine who tracked some of them down after the death of their mother.

“It was basically through TikTok and Ancestry DNA that two of my sisters found each other and that's how we were connected," he said. "So unfortunately, my mom was unable to reunite with her other children.”

After a DNA analysis, Phillip and his sister Josephine reunited with three of their siblings. Jerry Gray is one of them. Jerry says he never thought he would ever get to meet his biological family and says he wishes he had been able to reconnect with his mother before her death in 2015.

“I'm learning that she was a wonderful mom, very caring and loving. And learning that I wish I was there to see it firsthand and experience it firsthand," Gray said.

While he says he can’t go back in time, he’s learning to connect to her through a Day of Dead altar his brother Phillip makes for her every year.

Day of The Dead Altar for Magdalena and her four sisters.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Day of The Dead altar for Magdalena and her four sisters: Margarita, Susana, Luisa and Eloisa.

“It's been a wild ride for me, you know, just to see everything. Meet siblings and family, lots of family. And learning about my mom, stories about my mom. It's pretty heartfelt and amazing to me," Gray added.

This year Phillip, Josephine and Jerry joined other Lansing residents for the city’s 25th Day of the Dead celebration by making an altar for their mother and aunts.

Magdalena Cortez traced her roots back to Mexico and Herrera says his mom was proud of being Mexican American.

“I always described her as like a cross between Dorothy Gale and the Wicked Witch maybe because she had her good side and she had her bad side," he said.

On the altar, Herrera has placed photos of his mom, her sisters and in the center, a recent photo taken of him with his siblings reunited after decades apart, along with some of her favorite treats.

 Altar at Lansing's 25th Celebration for Day of The Dead
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Altar at Lansing's 25th celebration for Day of The Dead

“There's several things that she liked: she was a Pepsi drinker and she liked circus peanuts. So we have some of those things up there for her," he said.

Herrera has set up his mother’s altar following Mexican tradition.

Lansing resident Patricia Briones says the practice stems from the belief that the dead return on November 2nd to visit their living relatives.

“So the altars, the ofrendas, that we build help us to say to our departed loved ones: 'I love you. I miss you. I remember you. You're in my heart,'" Briones said.

The most common Mexican ofrendas, or offerings, have three levels to represent heaven, earth and the underworld. There are also decorations like skulls, candles and marigolds. These bright orange and yellow flowers are said to attract souls to the altar.

Day Of Dead Altar for Black Americans who have been killed by the police
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Day Of Dead altar for Black Americans who have been killed by the police.

“There's the traditional things that are included in the ofrenda starting, of course, with the pictures of your loved ones and then the cempasúchil — the flowers, the candles. Then you have to have like salt and water, there's several elements to represent the earth, wind, and fire.”

When teaching others how to make ofrendas, Briones takes the opportunity to teach about grief and the ways Day of the Dead reminds us to understand and be more comfortable with the idea of death.

“That ability for people to share those, you know, those feelings is not something you get over. It's something that for the rest of your life you remember that person, you miss them, you know, and so you don't want to forget them, we want to honor them in whatever way you can," she explained.

Connecting with his mother through his siblings’ memories of her is something Jerry Gray plans to continue to do. Next year he hopes to join his brother Phillip in making an altar for the mother he never got to know.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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