As the 1st and 2nd of November approach, students may start to wonder about some of the deeper meanings behind Dia de los Muertos traditions. Today we have an important “Double Header”, the first article uses a beautiful resource provided by National Geographic to introduce the complex idea that death can be as much cultural as it is biological, and how certain visual elements of Dia de los Muertos teaches us that. The second is an article that focuses on the ancient Olmec’s and their contributions to Dia de los Muertos traditions.
*** Also, next week’s post (final post before Dia de los Muertos) will delve deeper into the idea that, although Dia de los Muertos is uniquely Mexican and Latin American, its foundation in ancient understandings of the cosmos, agriculture and harvest is universal, and can even help explain how Halloween and Dia de los Muertos are not so different after all. ***
National Geographic Provides a Beautiful Día de los Muertos Teaching Resource
Continuing with our focus on teaching Día de los Muertos, the colorful and lively Latin American holiday that honors the dead, a wonderful resource for both students and educators is found in National Geographic’s Education section. This multimedia resource provides vibrant photography, background history, as well as a list of key vocabulary and discussion questions. The discussion questions are a great place to spark conversation about some of the most salient and relevant elements of this two-day long celebration, which takes place every year on the 1st and 2nd of November.
One of the questions asks, “Why are the masks and decorations in these photos only half-covered with skulls and skeletons (called calacas and calaveras)?” The answer involves understanding the Mexican concept of death – the basic life philosophy that every living being, no matter how beautiful or colorful, will eventually be exposed as nothing more than calacas and calaveras. Broadly speaking, Mexican culture embraces the inevitability of death and does so openly, without depression or mourning. As the Mexican writer Octavio Paz put it, “The Mexican… is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
This idea that all living things die is at once completely central to Día de los Muertos traditions, and at once what makes this celebration difficult to teach to young students. However, another way to frame this concept is that the past is as much a part of our communities as the present and the future, and confronting the past ) is a necessary process for any culture or individual.
In the vocabulary section you will find key terms, such as “indigenous,” which can help guide discussion and responses to students’ questions and insights by pointing to certain elements of history that explain how Catholicism combined with Aztec and other indigenous traditions to create the characteristics of today’s customary celebrations, not only in Mexico, but throughout Latin America and any place where there is a Hispanic/Latino community. In fact, the cover photo on Nat Geo’s page is an image from Los Angeles, California.
Image: Dia de los Muertos in Mission District of San Francisco. Reprinted from Wikimedia Commons user Jaredzimmerman under CC ©.
Día de los Muertos Roots in Mesoamerica’s “Mother Culture”: The Olmecs
When teaching and learning about Día de los Muertos, it is sometimes difficult to separate the many histories and traditions that contributed elements to create this celebration of life and death. In turn, it is perhaps easy to oversimplify the many cultural building blocks that came together to create this tradition into just two: indigenous and European, or even Aztec and Spanish; but, where did the Aztecs and other indigenous cultures get their traditions from? Part of the answer lies within the art left behind by a great “mother culture”: The Olmec.
The Olmec civilization is most famous today for the sculptures of colossal heads they left behind throughout present-day Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. The Olmec civilization predates all other Mesoamerican cultures, and although there remain many mysteries to be uncovered through archeological research, it is apparent that the Olmecs were a mother culture for the Mayans, Aztecs and many others. Among the Olmec customs and traditions that were adopted by later cultures are the ancient ballgame, the cultivation and consumption of chocolate, as well as a unique system of religious symbols that came to characterize many of the Aztec and Mayan’s central gods, anthropomorphized figures that ultimately found their place in Christianized celebrations, such as Día de los Muertos.
Understanding Día de los Muertos as a celebration not simply of death, but rooted in the belief that we, as humans, have many facets to us, many phases, stages and faces as we grow, develop and learn, takes us right back to the Olmec art depicting faces that are combinations of humans and animals. It is no surprise that the Olmecs also left behind exquisite masks, precursors to those worn today during Día de los Muertos celebrations.
Please follow the above links to various resources regarding the Olmecs and their religious beliefs that can be seen today in Día de los Muertos celebrations! The first three links will bring you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, a wonderful resource for historical information and explanations of Olmec belief-systems. The final link will bring you to a collection of photographs, and you can use the arrowhead button at the bottom of the page to access a large archive of visual aid for the most important Olmec artifacts, including sculptures, calendars and glyphs.
Have a wonderful weekend!
Images: Modern Mask. Reprinted from Flickr user SKLurks under CC ©.
Ancient Olmec Mask. Reprinted from LatinAmericanStudies.org under CC ©.