When I was a Spanish teacher in a California elementary school, one of my favorite traditions to teach was el Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.
El Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Latin America and within Latino communities each year on November 1st and 2nd. It is a time to celebrate and honor loved ones who have passed away, as it is believed that their souls return on these days to be reunited with the living.
Some parents might be concerned that exposing children to a tradition that honors death would overwhelm them or make them too sad. But Día de los Muertos is a beautiful celebration which you can share with your child to help honor beloved family members or pets who have passed in a loving and meaningful way. The Pixar movie Coco does a terrific job at showcasing the Day of the Dead in an authentic and child-friendly way. You, too, can use this movie as a jumping-off point to help your child understand this beautiful celebration.
As with any culturally sacred tradition, it is important to celebrate Día de los Muertos with reverence and respect, and without appropriation. Reading books and articles about how the tradition is celebrated and finding out more information from Mexicans and other Latinos is key to truly honoring the holiday.
I have lived in Mexico City for two years and this is my favorite time of year. Orange marigolds, or cempasúchil, are known as “the flower of the dead” and can be seen all over the city, in the freeway dividers, in stores, and schools. The marigolds, with their bright color and pungent smell, are believed to attract the souls of loved ones who have passed, bringing them back to family and friends on this special holiday. Some people place marigold petals in the shape of a pathway towards their house, to guide their deceased loved ones home.
The city organizes spectacular parades showcasing the color and joy of el Día de los Muertos; community altars, as well as family altars, can be seen everywhere! Scrumptious pan de muerto, or “bread of the dead,” is a delicious sweet bread and is available in all bakeries during the weeks leading up to the event.
If you and your family would like to learn more about el Día de los Muertos, here are some tips to get you started.
Start by making personal connections.
Talk to your child about anyone they might know who passed away, including a pet. Remind them of how your family honored or celebrated the life of the deceased. Explain to your child that in every community, people have different ways of remembering and honoring loved ones who have passed away.
Deepen their learning with images, stories, and videos.
Show your child a map of Mexico to give them a point of reference. Explain that el Día de los Muertos is not a time of sadness—rather, it’s a joyous event in which families and friends get together to create a colorful altar decorated with pictures of their loved ones, candles, flowers, their favorite foods, skulls and skeletons.
On November 1st and 2nd, families visit the gravestone of their dead loved ones and decorate it with marigolds in elaborate patterns. They place their deceased loved ones’ favorite food, beverages, and other symbolic items on the grave site. People play music, sing, and dance. There is a certain level of positive celebratory energy during el Día de los Muertos.
There are also several books and videos that can give your child more insight about el Día de los Muertos. Here are few excellent resources:
- Dia de los Muertos by Roseanne Greenfield Thong
- I Remember Abuelito: A Day of the Dead Story/Yo Recuerdo a Abuelito: Un Cuento del Día de los Muertos by Janice Levy
- The Day of the Dead by Bob Barner
- Felipa and the Day of the Dead by Birte Muller
- Un barrilete/Barrilete: para el Día de los Muertos/A Kite for the Day of the Dead by Elisa Amado
- Día de los Muertos. Cortometraje Animado. También mira a Yuya by Jose Petronilo Gonzalez Sinecio on YouTube.
- National Geographic: What is Day of the Dead by National Geographic on YouTube.
- Day of the Dead: A Celebration of Life by Google México on YouTube (Spanish and English subtitles—you may need to read the subtitles aloud to your child).
Build an altar.
Place a table against a wall (or just use a shelf) and cover it with a tablecloth or papel picado (colorful tissue paper cut into various shapes and designs). Put some boxes to create different levels on the altar. Ask your child for input on the design and placement of items on the altar. Gather pictures of loved ones, candles, flowers, and food, and place them on the altar. These items are called ofrendas, or offerings, to the dead. Remind children of the sacred nature of altars, and how they are treated differently. If you are not of Latino heritage, this is also a good time to discuss the importance of respecting other cultures.
An excellent way to learn about the Día de los Muertos tradition is to make some art to place on your altar. Here are a few options:
- Pinch pots: Get some quick dry clay and form a small bowl or pinch pot. Paint it with acrylic paint and then add it to your alter. Place dried food, such as rice or beans, in the pot as an ofrenda to the deceased.
- Sugar skulls: A classic addition to a Dia de los Muertos altar are these quintessentially Mexican sugar skulls. Enjoy decorating them with frosting!
- Papel picado: Your child is sure to get their creative juices flowing by making these colorful tissue paper flags or “perforated paper.”
- Tissue paper flowers: If you can’t get marigold flowers in your area, make these paper ones and place them in vases on your altar.
- Paper skull: Color this intricate skull image and add it to your altar.
Create a dedication.
Invite your child and other members of your family or community to place their own dedications or offerings on the altar. Your child could write their dedication on a butterfly cutout template. Have them think of a deceased loved one and write a fond memory or message to them (younger children could draw a picture or say a dedication orally). Alternatively, a dedication could take the form of a letter or art piece as well.
Building a family or community altar can help a child process the death of a loved one by focusing on the joy they brought when they lived. El Día de los Muertos is a tradition that reminds us that death may be inevitable, but we can celebrate those who have passed on with this unique custom.
By Sarah Zegarra (M.Ed), educator and teacher leader who taught K-5 bilingual education (Spanish-English). She is passionate about project-based, whole-child, culturally responsive teaching, and integrating the arts into learning.