Middle School Learning by Doing Elective Class
A Cross Curriculum Elective Unit with Spanish & Art
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest. It is celebrated throughout México and in recent years, has been adopted by many societies in the U.S.A.
The ofrenda (offering) altar is constructed to help guide the spirits of family members back to the land of the living on the noche de muertos, the night of November 2. The altar holds all four elements- earth, wind, water, and fire. Representing the element of earth, seeds or grains are left out in bowls, while salt is left to cleanse the spirits and purify their souls during the following year. The students made all parts to the altar and learned the significance behind each of the elements. They created embossed metal folk art which is a technique that raises a 2 dimensional image into a 3 dimensional. With embossing, students craft traditional Mexican imagery that surrounds the photos of the loved ones that have passed and sit at the top of the altar. They also created the Dia de los Muertos Lettering using hammers and nails to create the raised and textured designs. They made flores de papel (tissue paper flowers) to build the Día de Los Muertos arch and papel picado (perforated paper). These perforated designs are still hand-cut in Mexico with tissue paper, making it a recognized Mexican folk art. Draped around altars and in the streets, the art represents the wind and the fragility of life.
The ceramic skulls were made from past students who wanted them to be kept for the purpose of the altar every year. Placed alongside photos and possessions of the dead, the graphic representation of the human skull, confronts the observer with their own mortality. The brightly colored orange petals of the marigold flowers are said to represent the sun. Along with its sweet, floral scent, which gets carried along by the evening winds, the flowers lead the spirits to their shining altars. As twilight fades away, and family and friends gather around, the flickering lights begin to fill the nooks and recesses of the displays with a warm glow, which helps guide the dead to their altar. This is the fire element and it is believed that color, light, and strong scent of the flowers and candles can guide the souls from cemeteries to their families’ homes.
Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead) – which is a type of sweet bread that is only sold in the weeks leading up to the Día de Muertos. It’s eaten by the living, as well as left as an offering on the altar for the returning dead. The soap, a basin of water and the towel helps the spirits of the dead bathe and keep clean while they are back on earth. Pitchers of water are also left so the spirits can quench their thirst after a presumably long journey back home from the afterlife. This altar celebrates the loved ones we have lost within our community, as well as remembering and honoring those who have made an impact in our daily lives but were not directly related to us.