Celebrations such as the Day of the Dead allow us, Spanish teachers, to reflect on the purpose of our classes. Do we teach Spanish so that our students learn to decode the language? Or is it also our responsibility to teach about culture? A language is not only its syntax, but also its semantics, and it is semantics combined with cultural expressions that allows us to find the ultimate meaning of each interaction.
The Day of the Dead is one of those celebrations that can cause problems for more than one Spanish teacher. In Western European culture, death is a dreary, sad and sometimes even forbidden topic.
Spanish teachers spend long hours thinking about how to include and present the theme of the Day of the Dead in our classes. From the altar dedicated to loved ones who are no longer there, we switch to the photo of the pet that has recently passed away and then decide on making and decorating small sugar skulls that we believe help us clear the morbid aspect of the celebration.
So how can we celebrate this tradition in our classes without scaring our students? I think it is important to talk about what this day means before doing any activity related to it. Students do not need to directly talk about those loved ones who have died. We can start by asking them about those things they think about when they remember a loved one who is no longer here. The teacher will give an example like the one I give below:
“For me, my grandmother was a very important person. Every time I remember her I can smell her perfume, I can see her dresses full of patterned flowers, I can hear her voice and I can see her very dark black hair that everyone in my family inherited.”
We ask students to think of a special person who is no longer there and to share orally or in writing one or two feelings or images that come to mind when they think of them. This way we are establishing a connection between how the Aztec and Anglo-Saxon cultures see death. Although we are talking about loved ones who are no longer with us, through this exercise we can remember them with joy, happiness and with much love.
For the Aztecs, death was an essential part of life because thanks to it we are able to appreciate every day, every person who has touched our lives. For the Aztecs, the memories, experiences and lessons of those who left were the oxygen that allows us to stay alive. Every time I remember my grandmother I feel more connected to life.
It is common for the Day of the Dead to be celebrated in the United States. It is also common for many of our students to believe that this celebration is the Mexican version of Halloween. What should teachers do when their students confuse these two celebrations? It is important that we share with them the following information:
- Although they are celebrated on similar dates, the Aztecs celebrated those who had left for three months, starting in August. This coincided with the harvest of the corn crop, which was their main meal and synonymous with life. For the Aztecs, we were made of corn.
- The Day of the Dead ended up being celebrated on November 1 and 2, due to the cultural syncretism after the conquest. For Spaniards raised in the Christian faith, the first two days of November celebrated all saints and the faithful departed. The cultural imposition of the Iberians in what is now Mexico reduced a celebration from three months to two days.
- Despite the temporary reduction of the celebration to those who had left this world, the tradition of celebrating life through remembrance and tributes to the dead has persisted through time.
- While for Christians death is fearful and unpleasant, for the Aztecs, and in general for the Mexicans, death was the only reason why life exists. For the Aztecs, celebrating death meant honoring life itself. For them, life is a cyclical process that repeats itself, which has multiple beginnings and endings that blur over time until they become confused in eternity. For Europeans, life was linear and could not be conceived without a beginning and an end.
- The Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of Halloween in America. Although the two celebrations have aspects in common, such as the time of the year and references to death and the afterlife, Halloween has a satirical and carnival background that has nothing to do with solemnity and respect for those who have been represented on the Day of the Dead.
- The Day of the Dead was recognized in 2003 by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
- Media and corporations have trivialized a rich cultural tradition into meaningless cartoons just for the sake of selling whatever product they want to sell.
Possible ways to celebrate the Day of the Dead at school:
The celebration of the Day of the Dead must first and foremost be a celebration of life.
Ask your students to share the favorite music of a loved one who is gone. Let that music play during a class activity. It is not necessary that it be in Spanish or that it be listened carefully by everyone.
Ask your students to bring an object that has the favorite color of a loved one. It can be flowers, it can be a notebook, or anything with that color. You can ask them to explain it or just to bring it and have it by their side during class.
Get a notebook where students who do not want to share in another way, write something about a lost loved one.
Another version of the written tributes is to ask students to write about a loved one and then collect those cards in a jar.
For more AP® lesson plan ideas for the Day of the Dead, visit Diego’s blog.
Diego is a passionate Spanish teacher and an accomplished world language presenter. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, with many years of experience teaching in his native country and in the United States, Diego brings a refreshing, cultural awareness and innovative perspective to the teaching of the Spanish language. Diego is co-founder of #langchat, a Twitter chat that has supported many world language educators in the US since 2011. He also is co-founder of #CharlaELE1 a Twitter chat where Spanish teachers around the world share and collaborate. Diego is currently the World Languages department chair at Louisville Collegiate School in Louisville, KY.