Day of the Dead

By Amy Knutson, Education & Programs Assisant

Dia de los Muertos is a traditional Mexican holiday to remember and celebrate family members and friends who have died, and to let them know that their loved ones on earth still care about them. The holiday can be traced back 2,500-3,000 years to a month-long Aztec celebration. The celebration was moved to November 1st to connect All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, after Spain conquered the Aztecs in the 16th century.

Before the celebration, relatives decorate their deceased family members’ graves. “… In the local cemetery, relatives spruce up each gravesite… cutting down weeds that have sprouted up during the rainy season, as well as giving tombs a fresh coat of paint… The graves are then decorated and may be simply adorned or elaborately embellished with colorful coronas (wreaths) and fresh or artificial floral arrangements (Palfrey).[1]

However, the most important part of this process is to build an altar to welcome the departed soul home, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed! Celebrations on November 2nd are like carnivals, as stories about the dead are remembered and retold. People who are very talented at writing sometimes create silly short poems about their friends that describe interesting habits or funny stories about their lives. Dia de los Muertos is a day to remember and celebrate lives.

At P.S. ARTS, many of our Teaching Artists do a variety of projects in their art classrooms to celebrate this popular Mexican holiday. Several of our theatre classes are working on pieces that will be presented at community celebrations. Mr. Pedro’s middle school class at Reef-Sunset Middle School wrote monologues to perform (as well as build a giant tree for their show!) and Miss Martha from Edison Language Academy is working with her elementary school students on a presentation for the school’s Dia De Los Muertos celebration, with each grade presenting a different skit or poem.

Our Visual Arts teachers also used this time to further cement the students’ understanding of our overall theme for the year (“Tree of Life: Roots and Branches”) by making the connection to cultural traditions as foundational to our identities, just as roots are foundations for trees. Miss Tamie from Grand View Elementary and Miss Sandy from John Muir Elementary are both leading units on Dia de los Muertos; students created calacas (skeletons) necklaces and “Skulls on a Stick” while Mr. Ben from Mark Twain Elementary even taught the other teachers at his school how to make sugar skulls!

Every year in Los Angeles, there are several huge celebrations for Dias de los Muertos, and it’s no different in our classrooms. Happy Dia de los Muertos!

A special thank you to our Chan Fellow Silu Zhang for taking these great pictures during her site visits!

[1] Palfrey, D. (1995) November 2: The Day of the Dead.  Mex-Connect. Retrieved from

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