Community Day of the Dead altar saves mementos from Oregon wildfire

Wildfires

The Almeda Fire destroyed more than 2,000 homes, but spared the Talent Historical Society

The community Dia de los Muertos altar at the Talent Historical Society (courtesy Chela Sanchez)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A community Dia de los Muertos altar in Southern Oregon ended up saving dozens of family’s photos and heirlooms from burning in wildfires, offering a wisp of hope during a harrowing time.

In September, the Almeda Fire destroyed more than 2,000 Jackson County homes. With little time to evacuate, many families lost everything.

“The amount of loss that community has suffered is incredible,” said Chela Sanchez, who estimates 80% of the families who went to her elementary school lost their homes in the fire.

The blaze spared the Talent Historical Society, though, and its collections, which include a community Dia de los Muertos altar. The Mexican holiday, known as Day of the Dead in English, starts on November 1 and ends the next day. It’s a time for people to honor loved ones who have died. The altars usually include a photo of the person being remembered, items they held dear (in the case of Sanchez’ grandfather, his rosary), flowers and food.

The historical society had collected close to 60 photos for its year round exhibit, as well as mementos, said Sanchez, who was instrumental in creating the community altar. For some families, those are among the only personal items they have left now.

“It’s a bit of hope,” Sanchez said. “When people select a picture to put on an altar it is of someone who is of immense importance to that person’s life. They are the person who like shepherded them through a difficult time or were an inspiration as they were going through life.”

Despite all the loss, Sanchez said that may give people “enough light to make the next step. You might not be able to see the full journey ahead of you, but at least it’s like, ‘Okay. On the hardest days I know this, this was saved.”

The exhibit has only been part of the Talent Historical Society for about a year, originating from a Dias de los Muertos race that Sanchez helped start in 2014. That event is continuing this year, albeit virtually, which means people anywhere in the world can run a mile, 5k, or 10k any time from now until November 30, 2020 and submit it online.

This year, Sanchez said they’re donating the funds to the victims of the Almeda Fire.

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