The lights at the entrance to the Senior High’s auditorium were dimmed today, yet the mood inside was cheerful as students and teachers gathered in the transformed space to honor, remember and celebrate their loved ones who had passed during “Día de los Muertos,” or “Day of the Dead.” A collaborative project between students of all grade levels in Spanish and art, along with help from students from Life Skills and Wood Technology, students and teachers throughout the high school were invited to bring in photos of departed loved ones to place on tables in an act of honor and celebration, rather than mourning.
The holiday, which is celebrated on November 2nd in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, came to prominence for American students in “Coco,” a Disney movie released in 2017, which is around the time that high school Spanish teacher, Señorita González, brought the idea to all students in the high school. Soon after the new yearly tradition was launched, however, Covid forced Señorita González to pause or scale back the celebration to just the senior high’s students in Spanish classes. Sadly, it was also during Covid that she lost her sister–a tragedy that gave her the motivation to continue to grow the event once social distancing restrictions were lifted. Her sister’s death allowed her to recognize that many students may have lost ones during the pandemic whom they never had an opportunity to properly say goodbye to or mourn. “If anyone passed away during Covid, you know that there were no funerals and we didn’t have that closure.” she said. “I’ve appreciated that I’ve been able to share (this event) with students as an outlet with others to have a moment like that and to find closure.”
On each tiered and black-draped table, beautiful arrangements of food, sculptures, photos and candles were arranged, meant to entice souls to visit from the dead. Ceramics students in Ms. Pinkerton’s class had sculpted candle holders shaped like flowers or skulls, while Spanish students had created sugared skulls that the Life Skills students had helped them decorate. Freshly baked pan de muerto (bread), apples, bananas and water were placed on each table to entice souls to the tables and give them nourishment from their long journey. Spanish students crafted and painted papier-mâché animals to represent the dead’s spirit animal, a protector of their family after their departure. Framed photos (called a nicho) of departed ones and notes to them were tucked in between the objects, some written in Spanish and others in English. Art students in Ms. Buchholtz’s and Ms. Pinkerton’s classes created beautiful papel picado banners, skull (calaveras) prints using various printmaking methods, as well as paintings with patterned watercolors. Brightly-colored skeletons created by Spanish and art students finished off the decor on the walls and ceiling, creating a festive and celebratory vibe.
While people may think that students in World Languages only focus on learning vocabulary, Señorita González said that she and her colleagues appreciate educational opportunities to bring authentic experiences to their students–as well as the entire high school. “It’s so much more than just the language. We try to be as authentic as possible, and this is something where students can really feel that authenticity through the culture.” Further, she said that students from all nationalities, cultures and religions appreciate the event–many of them finding something to appreciate and take away.
She said that although many people outside of Latin America may view the holiday as morbid, she said that her focus and the holiday’s origins are on keeping the event joyful. “I’m from Berks County and I know that the way that we view death can sometimes be morbid–or a finite thing where when someone passes away we bury them and have a funeral but we never celebrate them again. I wanted to show our students that Day of the Dead is a beautiful celebration of life.”