Pilsen celebrates "Day of the Dead," honors young victims

Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is traditionally celebrated tomorrow with public displays, prayer and remembrance for Mexicans worldwide.

But at St. Procopius, a Catholic parish and school in Pilsen, Day of the Dead celebrations were held yesterday, to let students remember and honor those who they've recently lost.

On Sept. 15, two students from St. Procopius were killed by their father, Chicago police officer Dannie Marchan, who then committed suicide. The siblings, Anthony, 9, and Alizay, 7, yesterday were memorialized by photographs on top of an altar just inside the entrance to the school.

Angel Martinez, an eighth grader at St. Procopius, knew Anthony Marchan. He says he thinks the school came together in the weeks after the tragedy.

"We've had more prayer, more church," Angel says. "It's been really emotional."

St. Procopius started its Day of the Dead celebration six years ago. The first year, it was only students and a few parents. But this year, over 500 people attended the event, including classes from the neighboring parish school, St. Pius, says the event's organizers.

Student Angel Roman, 7, leaps into the air while dancing as part of the festivities. / By Kate Gardiner

St. Procopius Catholic Church has been a fixture of this small Chicago neighborhood for 132 years and has educated many generations of Latino immigrants. Many of the 200 students live as far away as Midway, but their parents drive their children to the school everyday to learn in the same classrooms from which they themselves graduated.

Ahmad Abuakar, the school's director of development and a newcomer, says the tragedy really helped him realize what the community, and the St. Procopius parish, is all about.

"What stood out to me, as an outsider was to see how it affected everyone in the community," says Abukar. The school came together, and everyone sent in help."

The Day of the Dead celebration has become a Pilsen fixture. The holiday, which dates back thousands of years, is steeped in symbolism and pays homage to dead loved ones.

Its traditions include live music, the building of altars, the sharing of food.

Father Mike Conley, associate pastor and third-grade teacher at St. Procopius, says the celebration is significant in Mexican culture.

"One of the most powerful things about Mexican culture is the joy expressed in public – we're here, in a plaza, after aprocession down 18th Street," Conley says. "And it's never insular. We feel that spirit of community, so much so we feel comfortable inviting people from outside the community to the event."