Seizing the day: Students learn about, embrace Mexican tradition of el D?a de los Muertos

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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It’s not every day that a school can combine a centuries-old Mexican tradition with Bob Marley, Frank Sinatra and two dead Beach Boys.

Walk into the student art gallery at The Hockaday School in northwest Dallas, and you’ll see rows of small student-made altars dedicated to just those people, along with children’s author Barbara Cooney, Spanish author Miguel de Unamuno and a dozen others.

The altars are the centerpiece of the school’s celebration of the Day of the Dead (el D?a de los Muertos), the Mexican holiday celebrated Nov. 2 and in the days leading up to it. A mix of Catholic theology and Aztec traditions, it has become increasingly popular as a teaching tool in Texas schools.

“The students love it,” said Grace Butcher, the Hockaday Spanish teacher who coordinates the annual construction of the altars. “The colors, the smells – it touches all the senses and emotions.”

The Day of the Dead is traditionally a time for Mexican families to honor loved ones who have passed on. They visit cemeteries, construct special home altars and make offerings to the deceased. Despite its connection with death, it is a festive occasion.

Maribel Diaz, who teaches a bilingual third-grade class at J.O. Davis Elementary in Irving, has made the holiday part of her curriculum for four years. Each year, she invites a class where only English is used to join her class: “It opens their minds to another culture and the way another culture celebrates.”

The classes read a children’s book on the holiday, compare and contrast it with Halloween and make art projects involving skeletons and skulls.

“The children cut a skull out of a paper plate, decorate it with sequins and write the name of a person in their family who they were close to, a grandparent or an uncle,” Ms. Diaz said. “They share their stories.”

For teachers, the holiday can be a child-friendly way to teach about Mexican culture, particularly in districts with substantial Hispanic populations.

“It’s a very popular cultural activity to teach students about the holiday,” said Elaine Phillips, field specialist for the Languages Other Than English Center for Educator Development in Austin. “Along with holidays like Cinco de Mayo, it really lends itself to activities that are enjoyable and interesting to students.”

At Hockaday, Ms. Butcher began teaching her high school students about the holiday seven years ago after she saw a traditional celebration on a trip to Mexico. “I was fascinated as an outsider, seeing people eating in a cemetery,” she said.

Picnics at cemeteries are often a part of traditional Day of the Dead observances.

The altars’ subjects are voted on by the students and tend toward pop culture stars. Each altar has symbols of the person’s life: a Snoopy doll for Charles Schulz, a crown for Princess Diana, Olympic rings for Florence Griffith-Joyner.

The altars also include more traditional elements, including the special bread used for celebrations in Mexico and the monarch butterflies that, in Aztec tradition, carry the souls of the dead.

Ms. Butcher also erects two altars of her own, one for loved ones of the school’s faculty and one for their pets.

“I really like the idea that dogs and cats can go to heaven,” said Julia Reed, a boarding student from McAllen who gives tours of the altars to visitors in Spanish as a class assignment.

The students say they enjoy participating in a reproduction of a cultural event.

“It’s exactly like back home,” said Estefania Solana, also a boarding student from Puebla, Mexico, who helped build the Sinatra altar. “I was very happy to see there is a tradition in Mexico they also have here.”

For some students who have gone through personal tragedy, the altars can be emotional. Ms. Butcher said several have been driven to tears by an altar with personal meaning.

Some critics have said that public schools should not be teaching about Day of the Dead because of its strong religious overtones. Like Halloween, the Day of the Dead takes elements of traditional Catholic holidays – All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2 – and combines them with native customs, in this case the Aztec conception of the spirit.

But Ms. Diaz said she is careful not to include Catholic symbols such as crucifixes in her classroom.

“I don’t focus on the religious part,” she said. “I focus on the traditions. I look at it as a holiday like Christmas or St. Valentine’s Day that has a religious meaning but also a cultural meaning.”

She said students who object to the activities because of religious convictions are free to sit out the events.

Teachers cite several benefits the holiday can bring for students, but they say one of the most important is the way it teaches children to accept death as a natural part of life.

“Some children are afraid of Halloween because it focuses on the gory side,” Ms. Diaz said. “This brings in a lot of emotions but not in a fearful way.”

Over the doorway to the altars room at Hockaday is a poster with a quotation from Mexican author Octavio Paz that sums up that lesson:

“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”