North Hi Mount Elementary
Fort Worth Independent School District


NORTH HI MOUNT ELEMENTARY CELEBRATES LOS DIAS DE LOS MUERTOS,
THE MEXICAN DAYS OF THE DEAD


During the month of October, 1997, students at North Hi Mount Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, prepared for the Mexican celebration, Los Dias de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead. These two dates mark the most important annual celebration in Mexico. November 1 and 2 are a joyful time of remembrance, reunion, and feasting, as families gather together to honor their loved ones who have died. In the United States, misconceptions sometimes arise about the Days of the Dead because of differing cultural attitudes about death, misinterpretation of the meaning of symbolic object such as altars, skeletons, and skulls, and the concurrent dates of the celebration of Halloween. Special toys and food are made in the shapes of calaveras (skeletons) for this holiday. For Mexicans the skeleton does not carry the negative meanings promoted by Hollywood; instead, it both laughs in the face of death and serves as a reminder that all are equal in death, both rich and poor.

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, a museum within walking distance of the school, annually presents a Los Dias de los Muertos exhibition using objects from their collection. The museum brings in students from the neighborhood middle and high schools to decorate the museum and arrange the ofrenda before it is opened to the public. Because North Hi Mount is so close to the museum, it was planned that all the students would visit the exhibition on the Friday before the actual public opening.

The students participated in a number of activities at their school in preparation for the museum visit. Working with the art teacher, the students studied the artwork and lives of two major Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. They assembled an ofrenda to the artists and painting a recreation of one of Riveraís murals on the wall across from the office. During the week before the visit, upper level students served as docents for the younger students, explaining their efforts and providing hands-on activities. On the day of the visit, classes took turns walking to the museum and participating in a docent-led tour of the Los Dias de los Muertos exhibit.

The Artist Ofrenda

Mexican families participate in the construction and decorations of ofrendas (home altars) to honor their loved ones. Decorations may include candles, flowers, incense, papel picado (cut paper banners, photographs, and offerings of the favorite food and drink of the deceased. As a class project, ofrendas can be created to honor a special person, such as an artist, who is no longer living. Such a secular approach may be helpful to teach students about the Days of the Dead without focusing too much on the religious aspects of the celebration. Other types of memorials could be discussed, such as the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veteransí Memorial, and memorials to individuals.

Creating an Ofrenda

Decide if you want an entire class to create one ofrenda, or if you want to divide students into smaller groups to each create an ofrenda. Choose an artist or artists. Any relatively famous artist will do, but if you want to use Mexican artists, some to consider are Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Ruffino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueros, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Tina Modotti. Other artists that are fun to do are Georgia OíKeeffe, Leonardo da Vinci, Grant Wood, or Picasso.

Have students research the artistís life, collect items to include on the ofrenda, and create artworks and written passages based on the chosen artist. Use a small table for the ofrenda and cover it with a fabric appropriate for the chosen artist. For example, a brightly colored oil cloth would make a great table cover for an ofrenda to Frida Kahlo, but an off-white, sedate linen might be more appropriate for an ofrenda to Leonardo da Vinci.

Other Possible Items for the Ofrenda

Again, make choices that express the chosen artist. Flowers, candles (you donít have to light them), photographs or self-portraits of the artist, reproductions of the artistís work, favorite foods, and other items that might be associated with the artist may be placed on the ofrenda. Ofrendas are often completely covered with objects, so encourage students to develop a variety of offerings. Display the completed ofrenda as an educational exhibit with a written explanation of the project and a biography of the artist.