Discovering Dia de los Muertos

Published 9:46 am Thursday, November 5, 2009

Eighth grade students at Helena Middle School recently completed “Dia de los Muertos” or “Day of the Dead” memorials honoring a deceased celebrity, historical figure or athlete.

Dia de los Muertos is an ancient festival that is celebrated on Nov. 1–2 and is more closely related to Dia de Todos los Santos, the Catholic holiday All Saints’ Day, than our Halloween.

The Day of the Dead is a celebration and gathering of friends and family to pray for departed loved ones.

A collaborative project of Mrs. Lindy Tubbs’ art classes and Mrs. Claudia Banuelos’ Spanish classes, the students worked in groups of four to create an ‘oferenda’ using shoe boxes, paint, markers and glue, found objects, fake flowers and a flameless tea light.

According to Mrs. Tubbs, “Each oferenda incorporated an environment for a calavara (a skull representing a likeness of the deceased) plus three symbols associated with that person and additions of food and flowers and a place for a candle.”

To introduce this weeklong project, the documentary “Food for the Ancestors” was viewed. It presents the culinary history of Mexico set in the state of Puebla.

The students learned about pan de muertos (bread of the dead) and mole poblano –– considered to be the greatest of all Mexican dishes.

The students studied vocabulary words provided by Mrs. Banuelos which included items traditionally left on the graves such as golletes, a doughnut–shaped bread glazed with pink-colored sugar, and calaveritas de azucar, sugar skulls, and cempazuchitl, a yellow marigold and symbol of death.

Some of the dead honored by students were pop king Michael Jackson, surrounded by red sequins, a glittery silver glove and flags made from Monster Poppers candy wrappers; Bear Bryant, in his trademark houndstooth hat, his candle resting on a miniature box of Milk Duds; and George Washington, ‘El Premier Presidente’ with his white yarn wig sitting in a toile-papered room with what looked to be a large plastic fishhook suspended from the ceiling, likely representing a chandelier.

There were also tributes to Walt Disney, Babe Ruth, Leonardo de Vinci and Billy Mays, where a cardboard camera pointed at him surrounded by Oxy-Clean signs.

Papel picado (colorful tissue banners) lead to the display in the Media Center where pots of tissue cempazuchitl made by sixth graders accompany the altars de muertos.

It will be on view through mid-November.

Columnist Laura Brookhart can be reached by e–mail at