Saludos todos! As we continue our October themes of death, grief and loss, this week I will be reviewing The Spirit of Tío Fernando, a Day of the Dead Story/ El espíritu de tío Fernando, Una historia del Día de los Muertos, written by Janice Levy, illustrated by Morella Fuenmayor, and translated into Spanish by Teresa Mlawer. Although this year we’ve tried to expand our October themes to focus on the general concept of death, and not just as it relates to specific holidays, I felt it appropriate to feature at least one book on Day of the Dead. Since Day of the Dead is a celebration and cultural ritual that we’ve worked on extensively here on the blog, we wanted to expand our themes a bit this year; however, there is a reason that we’ve worked so extensively on Day of the Dead, and I find it nearly impossible to talk about the concept of death in Latin America without mentioning this beautiful holiday. Moreover, this particular story does a nice job of exposing readers to the various elements and practices of the holiday as it is celebrated in Mexico, while centering primarily on the young, male protagonist’s experience with death and grief.
This book is bilingual and each page shows both the English text and the Spanish text. At the beginning, the author has included a paragraph describing the traditions of Día de los Muertos and the cultural context of the holiday: “The Day of the Dead is a centuries-old holiday, mixing ancient Aztec and traditional Catholic customs. It is celebrated throughout Mexico and Central America. During this time, people who have died are honored; their spirits are believed to visit the earth.” As this story shows, there are a variety of customs associated with the holiday, preparing altars to honor the dead, making the foods that they enjoyed most in life, and visiting the cemeteries to celebrate and be with the spirits. The holiday is an occasion to remember the positive qualities of the people we’ve lost, to celebrate the beauty and the life that once was, and make peace with feelings of longing and remorse: “When the holiday is over and the spirits have returned to the spirit world, the celebrants are happy and at peace, knowing they have made the souls of the dead feel loved and remember.” Personally, I find that people who are experiencing loss are often conflicted by a seemingly irreconcilable task: wanting to feel better and move on without forgetting about the person who has passed. This holiday is a lovely way of keeping the person’s memory alive, and investing time in their memory, while also taking care of the self, learning to make peace with feelings of grief, and channeling those feelings through this cultural catharsis.
The story centers on a young protagonist, Nando, whose uncle whom he’s named after, Tío Fernando, has just passed away six months ago. Although the boy’s deceased uncle, of course, is not physically present within the storyline, we learn some intimate details about him through the boy’s memories of him, and through the ways in which the boy sees parts of his uncle reflected in himself: “Tío Fernando had long, skinny legs, and the second toe of his right foot was longer than his big toe—just like mine. His moustache would tickle my chin when he lifted me in the air. He always brought me coconut candy that got stuck in my teeth.” Although the uncle is deceased, we can still feel his presence resonate throughout the story, much like the boy who can feel his presence resonate through his own being.
As the boy prepares for the Day of the Dead celebrations with his mother, readers will get a glimpse of some of the cultural traditions that make up this holiday. For example, we see Nando go to the market to buy sugar skulls, set up an altar with some of his uncle’s old belongings, and prepare his uncle’s favorite foods to also put on the altar. As Nando goes through the motions of preparing for the holiday, he wonders about how he will actually be able to reconnect with his uncle’s spirit: “’How will I meet Tío Fernando’s spirit?’” The vendor at the market replies, “’I don’t know, Nando. But when you do, you will feel good inside.’” Here we also see how this tale focuses on the young protagonist’s self growth and development. Although many people in Nando’s family and community are teaching him about Día de los Muertos and guiding him through some of the rituals, they also show him the tools for answering some of his own tough questions himself.
What is also especially valuable about this story is its use of a male protagonist. Many of the books that I’ve reviewed lately focus on female protagonists, and when dealing with emotional themes, such as death and grief, I find it especially important to include young boys, who are often discouraged from showing emotion, or from participating in more sentimental rituals. This particular book also reminds me a lot of a book I reviewed at this time last year, Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead, which also illustrated the many rituals associated with Day of the Dead through a young protagonist’s personal journey of confronting death and loss and learning to heal. Essentially, these books show how the process of working through complicated emotions, which is often considered an internal process, especially in hyper individualistic cultures such as that of the United States, can also be experienced and expressed socially, culturally and communally. Although Día de los Muertos is not practiced as ubiquitously in the United States, we can incorporate many of these values into the classroom. We can help our students through these tough times by showing them that grief can be shared and expressed with others, and does not have to be an isolating, solitary and internalized process.
For those of you interested in learning more about Day of the Dead, and teaching about this holiday in the classroom, you might be interested in some of the curriculum resources we’ve developed here at the University of New Mexico: Educator’s Guide to Día de los Muertos. There are also several excellent videos that can help impart the significance of this holiday to your students:
- National Hispanic Cultural Center: Historical Overview
- Eddie G’s School-Friendly “What is El Día de los Muertos?
- Animated short of Día de los Muertos (one of our absolute favorites!)
Stay tuned for our November themes and more great reads!
Images modified from The Spirit of Tio Fernando: Pages 3, 8, 9 14, 19