It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of Jennifer Patricia Briffa, aged 66, a devoted wife, mother, teacher, artist, activist and dancer. Jennifer lived an incredibly full and vibrant life, beginning her career as a ballerina, where she met her husband, Sylvio. After retiring from dance, Jenny set her sights on education, teaching for over 30 years across the Bay Area and exploring alternative forms of education. As much as Jennifer was an educator and artist, she was a Latinx activist and community organizer. Her commitment towards community, family and wherewithal to strive for a better future bound her life to many whom she met.
Jennifer was born in La Oroya, Peru on May 22nd, 1956 to Carlos Young and Sahara Zavala. She spent the first four years of her life among the Peruvian Mountains, before moving with her family to the steep hills of San Francisco. Jenny grew up on Potrero Hill with three younger siblings, David, Heidi and Carlos. It was on Connecticut Street, in the early 60’s, that she would explore her love of Dance.
Ballet came naturally to Jenny. Her father was a collector of classical music records and encouraged her to pursue dance as more than just a hobby. Eventually joining the San Francisco Conservatory of Ballet, Jennifer began her professional dance career which spanned 18 years of performance, and later instruction. While dancing for SFCB, Jenny met her future husband, Sylvio Briffa, in her late teens. They would go on to dance many Pas De Deux’ together that would be the foundation of their love for one another. Continuing to pursue her dedication to her craft, Jenny and Sylvio moved to Oakland, California, where she danced for Oakland Ballet, performing across the world into her mid-twenties with dancers who became life-long friends.
Upon retiring from ballet, she began her career in Child Development by receiving her Masters from Mills College in Oakland, carrying both of her sons Lucas and Vincent along the way. Through her work, Jenny sought alternative paths of education for children and young adults, founding a charter school in Emeryville, homeschooling her children as part of the Alameda Oakland Home Learners, and eventually becoming a teacher of early childhood development at the Peralta Community Colleges. Jenny’s passion for education is what drove her 30 plus years of teaching across the Bay Area, where she became a tenured professor at Merritt College, and chair of her department.
Education was such a defining factor in her character, yet it stood equally alongside her identity as a member of the LatinX community. In keeping with the history of Merritt College as an institution for racial advocacy, Jenny became a vibrant member and leader of the Latinx student body and diaspora. She taught several classes in Spanish, helped found Raíces (a Latinx graduation celebration) and most recently contributed to Merritt college being recognized as a Hispanic-Serving Institute.
Jenny’s life outside of her career was just as abundant. Jenny expanded her body of work as an artist through fiber art, exploring many mediums such as crochet, knitting, and felting. She carried on yearly rituals of attending Oakland Athletic games, building a Día de los Muertos ofrenda(one that would be recognized by a temporary installation at Merritt), and cooking Peruvian tamales for the holidays. Jenny continued to travel with her husband Sylvio, visiting her sons in New York and Chicago, vacationing in Mexico, and exploring the country one state at a time.
Jenny’s foundation of ballet, education, and heritage carried her through life with incredible determination and poise. But, in 2020, Jenny was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, and would assume her fight against the disease. While receiving treatment for her ailment, Jenny continued to instill in her loved ones her admiration for life, the joy of where it had taken her, and the fulfillment with which she had lived it. Jenny passed in her home on Warfield Avenue where she had lived for 40 years. She was surrounded by her family when she said goodbye and passed peacefully on October 25th, 2022. It is through her determination and grace that she stood in defiance of her illness. She reminds us to continue to live life with vigor as we hold her spirit and memory close.
Jennifer Briffa is survived by her husband Sylvio (68), two sons Lucas (33) and Vincent (30), sister Heidi (63), brother Carlos (61), and mother Sahara (92).
In lieu of flowers please make a donation to the Jennifer Briffa Scholarship for Future Educators.
Fond memories and expressions of sympathy may be shared at www.neptune-society.com/location/oakland-ca for the Briffa family.