Students learn Day of the Dead celebrates life

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Huntingburg Elementary School kindergartner Mekayla Chancho picks out paper cutouts to color during a Day of the Dead activity in the dual-language immersion class at the school on Monday.


HUNTINGBURG — Thinking of Halloween conjures up dark symbols that are spooky and scary.

Día de los Muertos? Not so much.

Sure, images of spirits and skeletons are also part of the early November holiday. But on Monday, kindergarteners in Huntingburg Elementary School’s dual-language immersion program learned that the Day of the Dead is a jovial occasion dedicated to remembering loved ones and celebrating their lives.

“It’s kind of like a mixture of Christian and Aztec culture,” said Carmen Brooks, one of the school’s DLI teachers. “And basically just believing that the dead are still around us. And that they come back to visit us. And that their presence is still here, basically.”

She explained that many of the program’s 46 students were already familiar with the holiday — either because they celebrate it with their families, or because they’ve watched “Coco,” a Pixar film that follows a young musician’s search for his great-great-grandfather in the Land of the Dead.

According to the Smithsonian Institute, Día de los Muertos originated in ancient Mesoamerica (Mexico and northern Central America). There, indigenous groups including Aztec, Maya and Toltec had specific times they commemorated loved ones who passed away.

After the arrival of the Spanish, this ritual of commemorating the dead was intertwined with two Spanish holidays: All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2). On its website, the Institute reports that Día de los Muertos is often celebrated on Nov. 1 as a day to remember children who have passed away and on Nov. 2 to honor adults.

Per the Smithsonian, the holiday is celebrated mostly in Mexico and some parts of Central and South America. Recently, it has become increasingly popular among Latino communities abroad — including in the United States.

Huntingburg Elementary School kindergartner Olivia Frick colors a skull during a Day of the Dead activity in the dual-language immersion class at the school on Monday.

The Institute reports that a central component of the Day of the Dead are “ofrendas,” or offerings that families use to honor their loved ones and provide them what they need on their journeys. These displays are constructed carefully and thoughtfully. Brooks used a decorating exercise to teach her students why certain objects are placed in the temporary altars.

“Most of them, they’re supposed to guide the souls of the people that have died back to their offering,” she explained. “So, the candles are lighting the way for them. The flowers — which are marigolds — are really bright to kind of make a path for them. The food is for it to smell good and guide them back [and] the photo is to show who it’s for.”

Huntingburg Elementary’s DLI program is now nearly three months into its first year of operation. The dual-language education offering teaches students in both English and Spanish, and by the time students in the program graduate, they will be fluent and literate in both languages.

“The point is for them to start learning when they’re really young,” Brooks said in her kindergarten classroom. “Because that’s a way better age to start learning a language than waiting until they’re a freshman in high school. And then, it’s also like I’m not just teaching them, ‘This is this word in Spanish. This is this word in English.’ The point is that they’re having to use it in context all the time.”

The local program is the latest of more than 20 dual-language immersion programs in Indiana, according to Herald archives. Staff members at Southwest Dubois began planning for the dual-language immersion program in 2019 and won a $50,000 planning grant from the Indiana Department of Education through the Indiana Dual Language Immersion Pilot Program that the legislature set up in 2015. A second $50,000 grant is helping the corporation pay startup costs for the 2020-21 school year.

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