Death Becomes Us
Students welcome skeletons, marigolds, and eulogies into the classroom for Day of the Dead.
Thursday, October 28, 1999
Papier-mache skeletons in brightly colored window displays along Watsonville''s Main Street wish passersby "Happy Day of the Dead," a greeting that may ring strangely in Anglo ears. But the Mexican celebration Dia de los Muertos does something no American holiday does: It honors the dead by celebrating their lives joyfully.
Students from Pajaro and Watsonville middle schools have decorated these storefronts, including sixth-graders Hilda Lopez and Estela Rocha from Pajaro Middle School. Hilda and Estela excitedly arrange candy skulls and flowers for their Day of the Dead altar one recent Monday afternoon. Looking around the newly decorated window, Estela explains; "It made me sad to remember my grandpa, but at the same time, it felt nice."
Exactly such sentiments have long encouraged families throughout Mexico and the Mexican diaspora to join together and remember the dead. The ancient civilizations of the Aztecs and Olmecs laid roots for today''s celebrations long before the arrival of Catholicism to Mexico. The Spaniards reconfigured the tradition to fall on All Souls Day and All Saints Day, and regional traditions developed, perhaps best known in the southern states of Oaxaca and Michoacan.
While traditions change and break down over time, Dia de los Muertos is alive in the classrooms and in the homes of Mexican immigrants throughout Monterey County. On the days of Nov. 1 and 2, gravestones are spruced up and repaired, flowers are strewn in a path for visiting angels, and families unite to cook elaborate and artistic feasts, to remember and laugh.
"It''s a loving remembrance for family and friends that passed away," says artist Patricia Sullivan, who explores Day of the Dead in her art show Bailando con la Muerte [Dancing with Death], an exhibit of her sculptures, photographs and paintings on display in the Hartnell College Gallery through Oct. 29.
Sullivan, who only began studying the traditions of the holiday last year, says she understands Dia de los Muertos as a fusion between festivity and artistic expression, two central elements of Mexican culture.
"While Americans tend to hide from death," Sullivan explains, "Mexicans live with death as a part of their daily lives, they feel more comfortable with it." Using Day of the Dead''s popular icons, such as skulls and skeletons, as art brings people closer to accepting death and understanding Mexican culture, she says.
Similar thinking led the Pajaro Valley Arts Council and the Watsonville Cultural Center to involve six middle schools in its "Dias de los Muertos: A Celebration of Family Remembrances" festival (see schedule of events p. 20). "Our goals are to bring cultural tradition into the schools and to send kids back home to ask their families questions about the holiday" says festival co-promoter Liz Reid.
"The big day is approaching fast--on Monday we set up our ofrendas!" Sue Terence tells her sixth-grade art class at Pajaro Middle School. Her class of primarily Latino students is working hard to prepare a traditional Dia de los Muertos altar. Hand-strung chiles, orange and yellow paper marigolds and tempera fruit paintings adorn the classroom.
Terence explains that Day of the Dead exercises introduce students to a variety of artistic media--pencil sketching of skulls, silk sketching of butterflies, clay and wire molding of skeletons--affording her the opportunity to work on color and light differentiation. Day of the Dead, Terence explains, "is an incredible opportunity for people to share in artistic expression."
As students take turns diligently pressing the sticky mixture of sugar, merengue powder and water into small plastic skull-shaped molds, some discuss the role of Day of the Dead in their own lives. Many students, particularly those who have lived in the United States for several generations, knew little of the holiday before this class project. But others, such as Araceli Fernandez, have experienced firsthand the joy of "reuniting" with the souls of lost loved ones.
"We celebrate in our house with our neighbors," Araceli explains with a smile. "We make punch, pan de muertos (skeleton-shaped bread), and lots of food." In the three years Araceli has spent in this country since her family moved here from southern Mexico, American customs have influenced the way she celebrates Day of the Dead. "Now we also wear costumes like Halloween," she says, "and we don''t do all the things we used to."
Studying an artistic venue rooted in Latino culture improves the overall quality of learning, according to Charlotte Eggleston, a teacher at Pajaro''s E.A. Hall Middle School. "A filter of warmth enters the classroom when we speak Spanish and explore Latin American heritage," Eggleston says. "It makes students feel comfortable and ready to learn."