Child dressed up for Dia de los Muertos

by Wendy V. Ash

Boo! Did that photo startle you? If so, that’s exactly the reaction I was attempting to procure. It’s the kind of reaction you would have at Halloween… but this IS NOT about Halloween. It’s about “El Día de Los Muertos”.

My response when a teacher or student asks me “How do you say Happy Halloween in Spanish?” is “Happy Halloween” using my best Spanish accent and being sure to emphasize a throaty “j” for the “h”. Then I start to wince as someone will start to mention “but isn’t it something ‘muertos’?”.

Yes, and no. That is part of what a certain holiday is called, but it is NOT Halloween. It just happens to fall around the same time. For those who do not know, “El Día de Los Muertos” is literally “The Day of The Dead”. I will leave the definition of the holiday to National Geographic so you can see for yourself the dissimilarity between the two holidays.

I have often struggled with the decision to have a lesson about El Día de Los Muertos. I have nothing against the holiday or the culture, but for the type of Spanish teacher that I am, the cons outweigh the pros. This time of year I felt the need to explain that conundrum.

Time. I am not a full-time staff Spanish teacher nor do I teach a total immersion program. If I could have more than a 1/2 hour with these bright children, I could talk about so many things. Unfortunately, many schools and preschools can neither afford the time or the price for extended classes. Thus, my focus need to be clear and concise for each minute. Teach them to speak the most basic Spanish they need for their age to start a foundation. Which brings me to…

Age. I teach ages 2 years old through 5th grade. A majority of my children are preschool through kindergarten. While the older children could get the concept of this colorful celebration, the younger children zone in on the word “dead” and that in itself opens up an entire can of inexplicable worms. Usually a conversation about many of their pets that have passed on, or more awkward still, a family member. I am highly supportive of lessons about the “cycle of life”, but as a Spanish teacher, I may make light mention of it and move on, but feel it is not my place.

Religion. While I am certainly tolerant of all religious beliefs and find them fascinating, it is also a sensitive area that I feel is better left to the professionals. When I taught at a Catholic school, it was wonderful this time of year to see the halls lined with “Día de Los Muertos” artwork. Having been raised Catholic myself, I could certainly appreciate the sentiment. However, if you were not raised Mexican and Catholic, the concept will certainly be lost on the little ones.

It’s a constant reminder to myself how to teach students so that I can maximize their language acquisition experience through high frequency vocabulary. “El Día de Los Muertos” does not fit into the criteria for my mission. The same rule applies to “El Día de Los Reyes” (coincidentally my birthday) and other incredible Hispanic holidays. I feel those lessons are better for religion or social studies class. Better yet, an inspiration for parents to teach a creative, cultural lesson at home… being sure to include all the delicious foods!

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