itlali Molina (’15 M.S.) sees the faces behind the statistics.
As a former counselor at Grand Prairie ISD, she knew the figures: dropout and graduation rates, ACT and SAT scores, pregnancy and drug use and homelessness percentages. She also knew the very real teenagers who were struggling -- socially, emotionally, academically -- both in and out of the classroom. Sometimes she could help. Sometimes it wasn’t enough.
She knows other numbing numbers, too, like 242,000 -- a staggering six-figure tally of the lives lost to COVID-19 in the U.S. alone. For Molina, they aren’t data points. They’re friends. They’re family. They’re smiles and tears, love and laughter, hopes and aspirations extinguished -- but not forgotten.
That’s why Molina, a doctoral student who previously received her master’s in the College of Education’s counseling program, decided to honor seven loved ones who recently passed away from COVID-19, along with two of her former students who died of separate causes, as part of ÚNeTe’s Día de los Muertos celebration. ÚNeTe, a Latina\o Faculty and Staff Alliance in UNT’s Division of Institutional Equity and Diversity, invited members of the UNT community to build altars to remember their friends and family who have passed on.
“I was like, ‘I have to do this,’” says Molina, who also saw the altar as an opportunity to reconnect with her indigenous roots. “There have been too many close loved ones lost -- people I’m not directly related to but who became part of this extended family I built. So this was my process of healing.”
As she lay photos of the departed on her altar, Molina whispered a prayer, thanking them for the love they left behind. “It felt not so much like I was talking to them in a literal sense, but that I was giving voice to their life and legacy,” she says, “and letting them know that we’re still carrying on here.”
In a nod to Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) -- the first day of the three-day Día de los Muertos celebration -- Molina’s altar also included an array of multi-colored butterflies that represented infants and children who have passed away. She placed photos of two of her former students on the altar as well, one who succumbed to cystic fibrosis and the other, Chris, who was killed during an altercation shortly after graduation. It’s his memory, she says, that pushed her to begin work on her counseling Ph.D. to identify strategies to best support students even after they leave high school.
“He was in and out of trouble every week, and I was able to work with him and get him to do good enough each day to stay in the classroom and not get kicked out and actually graduate. His death hit really hard -- I was like, ‘OK, helping kids pick the right career or trade or military school isn’t enough,’” says Molina, who expects to earn her Ph.D. in May 2021. “We have to teach our kids how to tap into their resources when they face oppressive systems outside of school. I came back to find a way to help build the resiliency they already have, because this kid faced obstacles that I would have never known how to prepare him for.”
Molina told stories of Chris, along with the other faces displayed on her altar, when she shared her creation during UNeTe’s virtual Día de los Muertos celebration. She won’t offer advice to those dealing with grief -- it’s their own process in their own time, she says. But in a year when so many are mourning, it always helps to look for ways to heal.
“It was very meaningful for me to do the altar and to take the time to sit with my grief,” she says. “I got to a point where I needed to do something to work through all of these feelings and honor their lives. It was a different take on the pain.”