Oaxacan sand art: Remembering children lost at U.S. border detainment centers

Oaxacan sand art: Remembering children lost at U.S. border detainment centers

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is about remembering and celebrating the lives of family members who have passed on. Traditionally, families leave food and flowers as offerings for the spirits of ancestors, but since the 1980s, sand art from Oaxaca, Mexico has become a growing part of the celebrations in the Day of the Dead. 


Fulgencio Lazo is a sand artist who began sand painting in Seattle, Washington about 27 years ago. He started doing exhibits in the Seattle Art Museum and eventually shifted to working with colleges and public schools. On October 17th, Lazo came to the University of Redlands to create a design to commemorate the lives of the seven children who died in detainment centers at the U.S. and Mexico border. 


Students from the U of R Art Department volunteered to aid in the process of the sand painting. It began with hauling in 1500 pounds of sand, which members of administration helped with. Next, the sand was spread over a plastic covering on the ground of the Ann Peppers Atrium and mixed with water. It then had to be stomped down completely flat before the design could be sketched in. Lazo designed the pattern, which he explained incorporates skeletons and flowers, as is traditional in Day of the Dead art. 


Coloring the sand is the last step. Art students worked in hour-and-a-half shifts to shake powdered paint onto the damp sand with small sieves. They wore blue masking tape on the bottoms of their shoes in order to avoid leaving marks in the sand, Lazo explained. It was a slow process, but the painstaking work paid off. As the powdered paint mixed with the moisture in the sand, it became brighter; the resulting piece was filled with vibrant blues, oranges, greens, and yellows. 


Hanging in the windows above the Oaxacan sand painting were posters from the printmaking classes. They were cut with laser cutters and are inspired by another traditional Mexican art called papel picado, or picked paper. There were seven of them, one for each of the seven children who died in detainment centers. The designs cut into the paper represent the children’s interests or heritage. 


Anna Gaitam, an art instructor at the U of R, explained that the printmaking students “researched each child and how they died.” One boy, for example, dreamed of having a bike in America, so his memorial poster included an image of a bike.


Fabiola Ramirez is a junior at the U of R. She helped make the poster for Wilmer, a three-year-old boy. Since he was so young, Ramirez admitted that it was difficult to find much information about him. Even his birthday was unknown. She and the other students who worked on the image decided to include designs that represented his home country of Guatemala. For example, there are seven orchids, the national flower of Guatemala, cut into the paper, along with a star to represent Texas, where Wilmer died.


According to Lazo, the sand painting and posters will stay in Ann Peppers for about two weeks because, he said, “the idea of the Day of the Dead is to share it with the people.” The work of Lazo and the students shows just that. From start to finish, the sand painting was a work of the community, which brought a colorful space to rejoice in life.