Standing in the bright and spacious main entrance lobby area of Southwest Middle High School - Academia Bilingüe are four of the school’s juniors. Their names are Maria Gonzalez, Juana Rafael, Lucresia Francisco and Anabel Vargas, and on this Halloween, half day of school, they’re dressed like Alvin and the Chipmunks.

But their focus at this moment isn’t on Halloween or their costumes. Instead, they are straightening and making little adjustments to something they created the week before: the school’s first-ever altar for the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, a holiday that originated in Mexico and is usually observed on November 1 and 2 to honor, celebrate and pay respect to family members who have passed away.

Their altar is a colorful and traditional array of different symbols. There are marigolds (the color and fragrance attract spirits to the altar) and Calaveras (or sugar skulls). There is pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and lots of fruit, favorite foods of those who have passed away and also meant to entice the spirits. There are balloons and candles and even hot chocolate!

All four Southwest students are close to each other and have family members they were close to who have died. Some, they say, far too young and in far too tragic circumstances.

When they learned about Día de los Muertos in their AP Spanish class, they decided they wanted to create an altar for Southwest to not only honor family but to help others at the school and in the community better understand Día de los Muertos and its significance.

Interestingly, in addition to their class, they all credit the 2017 Disney movie “Coco,” which was inspired by Day of the Dead and came out when they were together in middle school, for some of their prior knowledge about the observance and the altar.

The quartet then was joined by Southwest teacher Flor Santiago and school Parent Action Leader Reyna Garcia and together the six women went to work, creating a beautiful altar for Día de los Muertos as well as a fact sheet on the wall beside the altar that explains its meaning.

Garcia, an artist and community cultural worker, was thrilled by the students’ initiative and happy to assist them as they created the altar.

“It has many of the traditional elements although we did not put up photos of the deceased,” she said. “Photos would be a big part of what might be in a home altar. But here we did follow many of the traditions, and the altar looks really great. I am so proud of the girls for their work.”

Gonzalez, Rafael, Francisco and Vargas shrug off such praise, but each student said it was exciting and fun to work on the project, and all are pleased when fellow students stop by it to look at the elements and to read the sign explaining it.

“An altar is part of my family tradition,” Vargas said. “I have memories of doing an altar for my grandfather. So, I was happy and excited to bring it (an altar) here.”

Santiago, the teacher the quartet brought in to assist, said she hopes the altar can become an annual tradition at Southwest.

“It was great to work on this,” she said. “I think it’s important for the school, and I hope we can expand it in years to come. Sometimes this tradition can seem a little scary. The concept of death is not an easy one. But this is about celebrating and remembering our loved ones. And that’s a very important thing for all of us, no matter our age or background, to remember.”

Julian Ramirez-Torres, in his eighth year with the district and second as Southwest’s principal, agreed.

“The altar reflects a piece of my culture as a Latino male who was born in Mexico,” he said. “The fact that we can celebrate culture here at Southwest is great, and we plan on celebrating more cultural holidays and encouraging our scholars to take lead as they did for Día de los Muertos.”

In reflecting on the altar, Ramirez-Torres also recalled his own lifelong connections to GRPS.

“I love my school because of the community that it serves and because it’s the community that I grew up in,” he said. “Franklin Elementary, which is now Southwest Elementary, was the first GRPS I attended, so I am living a full circle experience.”