Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 2 (as part of a wider holiday that stretches from October 31-November 2). The holiday, which has roots in both Catholicism and in the traditions of the Aztec Empire, is seen as a chance to celebrate and honor deceased loved ones and to interact with them through rituals, food, and celebration. These activities will give your students an introduction to Day of the Dead and Mexican folk traditions, but can be easily adapted to classes of higher grade or experience level. It would also be easy to add language components to these activities as part of Spanish-language education.
Day of the Dead Activities
Papel picado, intricately cut tissue paper, is a folk art that is often associated with Day of the Dead in Mexico. Provide students with small, colorful squares of tissue paper (or something sturdier like card stock) and craft knives. Students will draw designs onto their squares, and cut them out. You can either provide students will stencils, or ask them to create their own designs. For Day of the Dead, ask students to create designs focused not only on skeletons and skulls but also family. Ask students to think about symbols or objects that are important to their family, and create images around those. For example, if the family all enjoys music together, make a design focused around guitars. If food, board games, or sports are a big part of family traditions, make those the focus of the designs.
- Materials: Medium-small squares of colored paper (tissue, card stock, or other), pencils, rulers/straight edges, precision craft knives, stencils and reference images
The centerpiece of any Day of the Day celebration is the ofrenda, an altar dedicated to deceased family members. Show students examples of ofrendas for reference, and provide them with a large collection of decorative materials to choose from. These could include craft-store marigolds and roses, votive candles, fake or real loaves of bread, and skulls (depending on time, these can be pre-decorated skulls or blank ones that students can paint). Colored tissue paper would also be useful. Ask students to bring photos of family members from home. Give each student a shoebox and let them design their own small ofrenda for their family, decorating it with the materials provided.
- Materials: Shoeboxes (or larger box if desired), decorative items for the ofrendas, art and craft supplies as desired
Alebrijes are colorful and fantastical animals that have been associated with Day of the Dead since the early-mid 20th century. Show students examples of alebrijes, and provide them with paper and colored pencils. Students will think about three animals they like and design an alebrije that combines elements of all three of these animals. Students will draw and color their alebrijes.
If you wish to expand on this, you can ask students to write a short story in which they go on an adventure with their alebrije.
- Materials: Paper, colored pencils, art and craft supplies as desired
One of the most beloved aspects of Day of the Dead may be face painting, particularly in the calavera tradition. You can complete this activity by either letting students paint each other's faces or by asking students to make simple masks of construction paper and painting those. In either case, show students many examples of Day of the Dead face painting for reference, and let them create their own colorful designs.
If you wish to expand on this, show students the works of José Guadalupe Posada (who developed characters like La Catrina as a form of social commentary) and work through his poems and images as a class. You can then ask students to create their own short poems about calavera figures.
- Materials: Body-safe paint or construction paper, acrylic paints, scissors, pencils, string, reference images. Optional: Poems and prints by José Guadalupe Posada.
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