Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a two-day Mexican celebration on November 1 and 2 that honors the lives of loved ones who have passed. The tradition is based on a belief that a passageway is opened between the spirit world and the world of the living during these days so that deceased family and friends can come back and visit.
Different cultures grieve and treat death differently. In Mexican culture, Día de los Muertos is a lively celebration of color, music, food, and traditions that acknowledges the beautiful lives of those who are no longer with us. Because of the time of year it is celebrated and the use of skull symbolism, Día de los Muertos is sometimes conflated with Halloween, but it is a completely separate holiday.
In the past century, Mexican-Americans have brought the traditions of Día de los Muertos to the United States as a way to share and recognize this part of their culture with their families and communities. With more than 37 million Mexican-Americans living in the U.S., Día de los Muertos festivities have become widespread across the nation. Read on to discover four ways to incorporate the Day of the Dead in your classroom.
1. Paint sugar skulls.
Sugar skulls, or calaveras, are one of the most prominent symbols for the Día de los Muertos holiday. Historically, calaveras reach back centuries in both Mexican and Spanish traditions, and they have remained one of the most recognizable features of the holiday and Mexican culture in general. Sugar skulls are ornately decorated with images and colors that symbolize various aspects of the loved one’s life.
Creating and decorating paper-mache sugar skulls can be a way to engage students in the traditions of this holiday and have them reflect on meaningful people in their lives. This activity can introduce students to the history of Día de los Muertos and the importance it still holds in Mexican culture today.
2. Bake pan de muertos.
Food is a fundamental aspect of Día de los Muertos festivities. Families spend days preparing various customary dishes as a way to honor their loved ones. Dishes vary by region, but in a typical spread, you can usually find mole negro, sopa azteca, posole, and tamales. There is also always a sweet treat at the end of the meal.
Pan de muertos is a rich, buttery pastry that is sure to please the tastebuds of your students. For virtual classes, have students watch as you follow the instructions of this recipe to make your own pan de muertos. Some students might try to follow along in their own homes! With in-person instruction, teachers can bring pan de muertos for their students to try or even bring in candied sugar skulls as a special treat. Through this activity, students can reflect on the traditional foods served on holidays that they celebrate and compare them to the dishes of Día de los Muertos.
3. Write calavera poems.
Writing a calavera poem is the perfect activity for older students, who can use their creativity to learn more about the traditions of Día de los Muertos. Calavera poems are a form of satire; by writing them, people can deal with death in a humorous and light-hearted way. Initially started as a means of criticizing the government during the Mexican revolution, calavera poems are imaginary obituaries that make fun of someone who is still living.
Students start by picking a subject for their poems, then write about that person’s character and how they meet la muerte, or their deaths, in a comedic way. To get their creative juices flowing, have them review these examples of calavera poems loosely translated into English. This is also a great activity for Spanish dual language students who want to practice their writing skills.
4. Decorate an ofrenda.
Ofrendas are one of the most important and meaningful aspects of the Day of the Dead because they create a space for reflection and offering. During Día de los Muertos, ofrendas are set up inside homes and feature pictures of lost loved ones. They are beautifully decorated with gifts of water, bread, favorite foods, flowers, colorful paper, and items that commemorate the life of the deceased.
As a class, you can encourage students to create their own version of an ofrenda in their homes to recognize loved ones. An alternative would be to visit their graves in a cemetery, picking up trash, leaving flowers, or just enjoying the peace. Disney’s movie Coco is also a great resource for teaching students more about the intricacies of this holiday.
Share with us on Twitter @ParticipateLrng how you and your students celebrate Día de los Muertos this year. For more information on how to incorporate culturally responsive teaching practices in your classroom, check out this blog post, or contact us directly.