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Walking through the Sotomayor Learning Academies courtyard my attention was taken by the sight of colorful papel picado, flowers, and skeletons. The students at the ArtLAB School were busily putting together a Dia de los Muertos exhibit.
The commemoration of Dia de los Muertos has grown every year to the point now where there are hundreds of events throughout the Southland. Schools, cemeteries, community centers, and whole cities are now implementing their own activities surrounding the holiday. It now extends the revelry of Halloween to several days but, for some, it also deepens their connection to the duality of life and death -- a day to honor dead loved ones and make peace with the eventuality of our own death. After all, Dia de los Muertos has its recent origins in the Aztec festival honoring the Goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl. A history, that can be seen becoming marginalized by the spectacle of the rich colors, textures and festivities of the day. You can now buy brightly painted calavera t-shirts at Target. This is a trajectory followed by other holidays as they move out of their cultural context and into mass consumption -- think, Cinco de Mayo or St. Patrick's Day.
For the students at ArtLAB, exploring Dia de los Muertos gave them an opportunity to learn about its history in indigenous and Latino cultures as well as create alters in remembrance of departed loved ones and art that searches for and captures the essence of the day. It was wonderful to see some of the students who took part in Departures Youth Voices last Spring flexing their creative muscles with beautiful displays, both somber and playful.
This is the first year that teacher Angela Salcedo has worked with the students in her Spanish classes to develop pieces around Dia de Los Muertos. This is a multidisciplinary project that brings together language, art and social studies and shares the results with the wider community. This seems to offer a more comprehensive approach to understanding and continuing the practice and celebration of the holiday. An approach that was evident as I viewed the work and talked to the students in the courtyard. An approach I hope to see continued.